When does free speech become unprotected speech? A couple of incidents this week proved that while saying something potentially offensive won’t land you in jail, it sure might cost you your job.
For example, on Saturday, media company IAC “parted ways” with company PR executive Justine Sacco who, the day before, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco was, of all things, head of corporate communications for IAC, a media company that operates popular websites including The Daily Beast, About.com, CollegeHumor and Match.com. “Her whole job revolved around communicating with reporters,” reported CNN, “which made her Twitter comment about Africa all the more shocking.”
IAC’s publicly issued this statement: “The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.”
Then there’s Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, who was suspended by cable network A&E after making this and other politically incorrect statements in a GQ magazine interview: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.” While Robertson’s opinions are protected under our First Amendment, his words were offensive to many.
While more than a million have joined a Facebook page defending Robertson’s right to his opinions, some want A&E to fire him. It’s a tough call; A&E has sponsors just as IAC has clients it doesn’t want to lose.
Whether you’re a TV personality or an executive at a major corporation, your freedom to express yourself through a stupid joke or faith-inspired prejudices can cause public relations nightmares for your employer. Fundamentally, it’s just bad PR to use the media to offend large segments of the population. The lesson: offensive speech isn’t always protected speech. Your thoughts?