Take Note, Hank Williams

Originally posted: October 14, 2011

Once again, a celebrity who has suffered the consequences of ill-advised comments has whined that their free speech rights have been violated. Hank Williams, Jr. is the latest entertainer to misinterpret the First Amendment and thinks he can say whatever he wants without repercussion. Williams made clumsy comments that compared a golf pairing of President Obama and Republican John Boehner to a meeting between “Hitler and Netanyahu” and, not surprisingly, ESPN decided to discontinue using Williams’ song to introduce “Monday Night Football.”

Williams complained that ESPN “stepped on the toes of the First Amendment” and robbed him of freedom of speech. Williams should note that the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech,” not “ESPN should have to tolerate goofy singers who say things that harm the channel’s image.”

Williams is just the latest in a line of athletes and performers who feel entitled to say anything, incorrectly expecting the First Amendment to somehow protect them from fallout. Whoopi Goldberg, Linda Ronstadt, and the Dixie Chicks have all lost endorsement or performing opportunities in recent years because of their political commentary. Last spring, football player Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers lost a sportswear endorsement because of a tweet that expressed support for 9/11 conspiracy theories.

The First Amendment protects citizens from government sanctions for speaking freely. Cultural fallout and financial consequences are the concern of the speaker.

Jeffrey M. McCall is professor of communication at DePauw University in Indiana and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.”

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