Valid Criticism or Mere Anger?

It’s rather a shame we can’t share some of the e-mails we at BiblioBuffet receive. Some are absolutely wonderful, others . . .  less so. The most recent was one of the latter. It was addressed to Pete Croatto who, in “The Athletic Supporter,” reviews sports books. Not much controversy there, right?

You’d think so, but Pete’s current column combined a book review with the story of its author, Paul Shirley. Shirley had been a ESPN.com columnist when he made a couple of controversial comments on sites other than ESPN about the Haiti relief effort and the Haitian people soon after the  massive earthquake in 2010. The fertilizer hit the fan of course, and Shirley was fired. Pete addressed both issues.

Yes, what Shirley wrote was tasteless, insensitive, and mean, but that he got dismissed for it should give every professional writer serious pause. The man was fired for doing his job.

Shirley, who’s not playing pro ball right now, had the misfortune of being a dissenting voice on an issue that united the world. Maybe he didn’t express his thoughts in the best way, but it wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t right. It was his opinion, and for ESPN, a journalistic enterprise, to punish him is unconstitutional. . . .

Is it possible for writers to represent a company and be themselves? Shirley already had that question answered for him. He won’t be the last writer who is unable to speak for himself.

Pete’s words hit sore spots with several readers, but it was one reader who furiously responded:

1.  Your right to exercise free speech only guarantees that you can say what you want, not that what you say be rendered immune from critique or other consequences. What you propose is the palin [sic] definition of free speech. Firing him is unconstitutional? You are way, way off.

2.  You presume that in saying something objectively awful, Paul was “doing his job.” Paul doesn’t get to determine whether doing that is his job or not. His employer does. He was employed at will, correct? Its not a gov’t job. Paul being shitcanned doesn’t “chill” the exercise of free speech. It’s more of a place and manner restriction. Paul is totally free to bloviate on his exerable blog and twitter about his nursed grievances against Mark Madsen, Jamaal Tinsley, black players in general, his crappy love life . . . and tiny penis. It wasn’t “misfortune” that he chose to write that crap and then double down with a non-apology apology.  It was Paul’s choice. How about some accountability for that assclown?

3.  It’s dumb for ESPN to fire him? You make this assertion but do not say why.  You want to have the tail wagging the dog. Sorry but in the real world, your private employer can fire you for almost any reason. You seem to be saying that Paul’s “rights” trump the people WHO ARE PAYING HIM. . . . Who cares if its marketing or why they did it. They have the right to.

Pete’s brief but calm response to him only appeared to anger him further so I suggested the exchange be discontinued on the grounds that neither one was going to change the other’s mind. Nicki Leone, however, had a far more eloquent response, and I quote it in full because it clearly defines the original problem and the reason why the firing should raise alarms.

I think your letter-writer is hiding behind technicalities. It’s true that freedom of speech is a constitutional right, and therefore, narrowly interpreted, means simply that you can’t be arrested for expressing your opinions. But a narrow interpretation of freedom of expression is a philosophically lazy position. I’d say that Shirley’s situation is more analogous to that of a whistle-blower. The question is not whether Shirley has a right to say something. But whether ESPN has a right to fire him for saying it. In our current near-laissez-faire capitalist culture, corporations work hard to maintain absolute control over their image, and since thanks to the Internet there is no longer a line between the “public” and “private” life, companies feel entirely justified in firing people over things they say on Facebook, for example.

Our collective response to this has been troubling: we self-censor ourselves in public forums because we know that now these are no longer places for personal freedom of expression. They are de facto public statements for which we will held accountable, and which will have farther-reaching repercussions than might be expected for a simple amusing post of the photo of the night you spent hanging out in a bar with your friends. We have ceded, almost without a fight, the encroachments of corporate interference into our social lives and their right to enact judgments upon us when our personal inclinations run against their perceived corporate interest. In its own way, it is not dissimilar to living in a religious state.  Somehow being a “good citizen” means being a good company man.

But freedom of expression shouldn’t be interpreted narrowly. Its power is in its universality. At the heart of the First Amendment is not a simple guarantee that you won’t be thrown in jail, but a promise to the country that an individual’s opinions will always be honored, and a recognition that in diversity of opinion is strength. And the First Amendment is founded on the assumption that we can judge for ourselves who is and isn’t worth listening to. Any governmental—or corporate—attempt to make those judgments for us violates the fundamental principle of Freedom of Expression.

Shirley’s case is a little more nuanced, because he is a reporter for a news organization, which by definition holds itself to certain standards of neutrality and objectivity. ESPN would never, for example, decline to report on an NFL team just because the team owner or manager cussed out the organization on THEIR Facebook page. They exist to report, not to judge. And in the case of Shirley, it sounds like ESPN is on even shakier ground because he was hired as an opinion writer—he was a blogger, with a specific abrasive style which the powers that be certainly knew about when they first offered him a contract. So unless that contract stated “thou shalt not give thy opinions upon any subject but basketball,” they didn’t have grounds to fire him. He wasn’t giving false information, he was giving his opinion. He was doing his job.

I think ESPN displayed a corporate cowardice in firing Shirley. They should have relied on the universal caveat I’m sure is printed somewhere on their site—that the views and opinions expressed by the writers do not necessarily reflect those of the organization. That is all they needed to say.

This country is on a disturbing road. Our constitutional liberties, which have defined the freedom America stands for, are under relentless if fairly quiet attack. I am not going to get into a political discussion, but the issues brought up here by Pete, by the letter writers, and by Nicki highlight what should be of concern to everyone. Certainly, Pete has the right to express his views. BiblioBuffet is not going to tone them down, or nor will the editorial team suggest that he stick to a straightforward review of a book and an author/commentator he cares about. Is the issue worth talking about? It’s up to you and me and Pete and ESPN. But it is not one BiblioBuffet is going to sweep under the rug.

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