Damon Bruce’s Rant and Free Speech
I wrote about it here and you can listen to the audio.
After being told who Damon Bruce actually was, many were offended or at least shocked that he would be so stupid to say these types of inflammatory things on the air. Maybe that was the point. Suffice it to say had he not made those statements, I wouldn’t know who he is and nor would I care.
I didn’t see many defending Bruce, but Rob Neyer on Twitter gave a defense of him because Bruce had been nice to Neyer personally. I really don’t have much interest in what Neyer says about anything and am not sure why there was almost as intense a reaction to Neyer defending Bruce as there was for Bruce saying what he said in the first place. Today, Neyer wrote this post on SB Nation giving his side of the story. Much of it goes into a discussion about how free speech can spur debate no matter which side of the argument you’re on.
What it comes down to isn’t the free speech argument and how Bruce being fired would possibly hinder that. It’s that Bruce’s statements, from a business standpoint, were so offensive that his radio station wouldn’t be firing him because of what he said, but because having him on their airwaves was not good for their business.
The station, KNBR in San Francisco, has reportedly suspended Bruce. This might die down. I’m not sure whether Bruce is a big enough personality that a large audience would have heard what he said had it not been plastered all over the media after the fact.
The idea of free speech is taken too far when it enters the workplace and one seemingly believes that the right makes it okay to say anything no matter how it is interpreted and not be held accountable for it. Had Bruce been a larger media personality who was known throughout the country, it would be easier for the station to compare what he said with the reaction to it, count up the amount of money he brings in via advertising revenue and determine that it’s worth it to keep him around no matter what he says. That has nothing to do with free speech. It’s selective enforcement based on how valuable or expendable an entity is.
I think you’ll find that the level of tolerance for controversy is inextricably linked to the amount of money that is on the line. How much did the producers of Two and A Half Men put up with from Charlie Sheen behaving in a way that – in the regular world or even Hollywood if it was a low-rated, low-revenue show – would have gotten him dismissed immediately? It was the number one rated show in large part because Sheen was the star. High ratings mean high advertising rates which means big money.
This line of reasoning can be extended to the ongoing Martin-Incognito saga. The Dolphins’ offensive line has performed horribly all season long. That’s one important factor that’s conveniently ignored as it gets swallowed up in the story. As much as Martin is lauded by some for his supposed intelligence as a Stanford graduate and treated by others as if his intelligence is why he can’t handle playing the NFL; as much as Incognito is treated by some as the ideal offensive lineman and others as a brutish buffoon who wrecks lockerrooms – neither has done a particular notable job in what they’re there to do: protect the quarterback. If it was Jonathan Ogden and Larry Allen who had an off-field problem, it wouldn’t have blown up to this degree because the team needs top-tier offensive linemen to compete and would have found a way to get everyone on the same page and able to function as a unit.
If the radio station leaves Bruce or any offensive personality on the air, the situation will sort itself out. The listeners will whittle away, the host will stay on the air and become more successful, or it will continue as it did before. It’s up to the radio station as to whether they’re willing to take the short-term hit, criticism and – most importantly – lost revenue from advertiser cancellations and see if the host can weather the storm.
It’s here where the line between free speech and freedom to speak intersect. An article in yesterday's New York Times related how colleges are looking at the social media accounts of prospective students and denying them admission in spite of solid academic credentials due to their activities on Twitter and other outlets. It’s common that employers will want to see a possible employee’s social media accounts to make sure they’re not hiring a person who will embarrass their company and possibly cause a decline in business.
Is that an infringement on free speech for an employer to tell an employee, “I don’t want to see you dropping F-bombs on Twitter”? No. There are usually clauses in an employment contract or applications process for a school that will give the hiring/admissions departments leeway in why they won’t choose to hire or admit a person. I certainly wouldn’t hire a person who was behaving in a manner I deemed inappropriate on social media and that’s not me saying, “You can’t say that.” It’s me saying, “You can’t say that if you want to work for me.”
There’s a difference.
No one is stopping Bruce from saying whatever he wants. However, to think that a firing or suspension is muzzling his right to say it is ignorant to the fact that he’s employed by KNBR. Should they choose to let him go, he can continue his anti-woman commentary on a personal podcast and no one can say a word. That’s free speech in its broader context. What he did on the radio was free speech as well. To think that he can’t be punished for it if it’s deemed inappropriate by his bosses is missing the entire concept of what free speech is supposed to mean.