Recently, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling — known for his outspokenness on political issues as well as for his pitching — was fired by ESPN as an analyst after he shared a meme on Facebook regarding the recent debate over laws covering access to restroom facilities for transgender individuals. This wasn’t the first time ESPN had disciplined Schilling for sharing controversial political views, but it was apparently the last. Conservatives, of course, were quick to rush to Schilling’s defense, but in doing so, many missed the broader point.
First and foremost, there is no First Amendment issue here. The First Amendment guarantees you the right to freedom of speech, not to freedom from consequences for what you say. The text is very specific: it bars Congress from establishing laws that abridge that freedom. It was never intended to apply to private corporations, so — as long as it acted within the bounds of any other applicable laws and his employment contract — ESPN has every right to fire Schilling. The network may discipline or terminate employees for behavior that hurts the corporation, and indeed, it has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders to do so. Any argument that individuals shouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of their speech from other individuals or private entities because of the First Amendment is based on a false understanding of the amendment and should be dismissed.
The problem is not that ESPN didn’t have the legal right to fire Schilling, or that the network was somehow criminalizing his beliefs. The problem is that ESPN pretended it was doing so just to be a good corporate citizen and in the name of journalistic ethics, when in fact neither reason is true. One would think, based on ESPN’s statement, that it consistently fired and/or disciplined employees who made controversial statements, but that notion is laughable. ESPN has had other employees who threatened athletes for denying their reports and made up stories without facing consequences. ESPN is hardly a paragon of virtue that should be emulated or praised.
The problem with ESPN’s dismissal of Schilling over his comments is that the network seems to have no clear standards for when or why it decides to fire employees who make controversial remarks. Of course, ESPN is a private company, not a public institution, so it’s not necessarily obligated to develop such standards and make them public. Instead, the network can insert blanket morality clauses into contracts and let its lawyers defend its practices in court if they’re challenged. Likewise, if Schilling and other employees feel they were treated unfairly, they can sue ESPN — but if they try to use the First Amendment as a defense they’ll probably be laughed out of the courtroom.
ESPN not only had the right to fire Curt Schilling, it had the obligation to do so. It was not a moral obligation, but a financial one. The issue was not that the executives at ESPN (or at Disney, ESPN’s owner) were so supportive of the LGBTQ community that they were outraged by Schilling’s remarks. Instead, they performed a simple cost-benefit calculation and determined that the backlash against Schilling would cost more than he brought into the company. We shall see in the coming months whether the calculation was correct, but for activists on either side of the issue to pretend that ESPN is for or against them in a larger moral argument is absurd.
This was a business decision — nothing more, nothing less — and it out to be treated as such by all of us.