On Tuesday afternoon, hours after “Roseanne” star Roseanne Barr sent a racist tweet, ABC canceled her show. It was a shocking turn of events, partly because President Trump has made racist statements with impunity; partly because “Roseanne” had been a massive ratings success and ABC had made the show a cornerstone of its fall schedule.
Some conservatives decried the move, saying that Barr’s First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.
Here’s why that’s not the case.
What is the First Amendment?
The First Amendment to the U.S Constitution protects the right to free speech and to a free press. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Why “Roseanne” being canceled is not a First Amendment issue
The First Amendment protects your right to free speech; it does not protect you from the consequences of that speech. In this case, it can’t save Roseanne’s job — or that of anyone who works for a private employer.
“It’s the company’s right to discipline their employees’ speech,” says Lata Nott, the executive director of the Newseum’s First Amendment Center.
You can say whatever you want if your boss is on the same page — but if you post something on social media that they think reflects badly on the company or is morally repugnant, you’d better brush up your résumé.
“It is our job as a society to permit speech, even and especially speech we find repugnant, and to protect the speaker from violent reactions to that speech. Additionally, speakers must not face repercussions from the government for what they say,” says the conservative “National Review.” “This does not, however, mean that speech comes without consequences. If Westboro Church leader Fred Phelps applied for a job at your company, you would be fully within your rights to turn him down because he is a vile, hateful person whom you do not wish to employ. This general distinction has been difficult for people to grasp in the wake of several high-profile incidents.”
There is an exception: If what you say is protected by the Civil Rights Act, you might have a case against termination.
But because Roseanne tweeted a racist statement comparing Valerie Jarrett — a black former adviser to President Barack Obama — to an ape, that definitely does not apply here.
“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” said ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey in a statement on Tuesday — well within her rights.