Under the First Amendment, every American has been granted the right of free speech, though not with its limitations. These limitations include fighting words, offensive speech, incitement and obscenity. How then should an overtly offensive—what some would call racist—comment be dealt with when tweeted by a well-known public figure, who has an anticipated TV show reboot in the works?
Earlier this year Roseanne Barr found herself in the unfortunate—albeit earned—position of having a reboot of her beloved sitcom cancelled shortly after her racist tweets about Valerie Jarrett, an African American woman who was a former senior advisor to President Obama. The now infamous tweet stated: “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” Although Roseanne quickly apologized, the damage had already been done and the show was cancelled within hours. At the time that the show was cancelled, they had just finished a successful comeback season and was expected to return in September.
The language of the First Amendment squarely applies to the laws that Congress makes, not the rules or regulations of private employers such as ABC, the network on which Barr’s new series was to be broadcasted. Therefore, employees in private work spaces have no First Amendment rights.
No amount of pleading could have changed the network’s mind in their decision to cancel the show. As Roseanne revealed that she begged Disney-ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood to allow her to apologize and make amends in an effort to save the series. She was informed that the damage had been done and there were no amends to be made.
In a strange turn of events, Barr attempted to explain that her rant was the resulting side effect of her Ambien prescription. To this, the maker of Ambien responded: “Racism is not a known side effect.”
In our social media obsessed generation, it pays to remember that maxim we have probably all heard as children: “If you do not have something nice to say, do not say anything at all.” When you feel the urge to comment, tweet or post, take a moment to think about the impact your words may have.