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Sorry, Hank Williams, Jr.: The First Amendment Isn't an Employee Benefit

I've been beside myself watching the debate over ESPN's decision to part company with Hank "Are You Ready For Some Football" Williams, Jr. Earlier this week the sports network decided to end its relationship with Williams and stop using the iconic theme song after the singer made comments on Fox News comparing Barack Obama to Hitler.

I'm going to go out on a limb... what is there to debate here?

I watched on the news this morning as pundits argued over whether or not ESPN's actions violated Williams's First Amendment rights. There are even polls that suggest people are split nearly evenly on the topic.

How can this even be a discussion?

Williams has every right to say whatever he wants about the President -- our great country provides for that. But ESPN has every right to terminate its relationship with him if it doesn't like what he says -- our great system of capitalism provides for that. A company has a right, even an obligation, to protect its image and interests, and decide how it wishes to be represented. The two rights are not mutually exclusive; freedom of speech is protected, but it doesn't guarantee employment.

Williams made a choice when he shared his political views. In making that choice, he accepted the risk that ESPN might not want to be associated with, or represented by, someone with those views or that way of expressing them. It is no different than if Burger King fires an employee for writing a blog post that says its French fries are horrible (note: they're not), or if Ford lets go a spokesman for making public comments that gas vehicles should be banned. These companies have to respect their employees' right to say whatever they want, but they absolutely, positively do not have to pay them to exercise that right.

I will miss that theme song -- it has gotten me ready for some football for more than 20 years. But I can't for the life of me figure out how this can be up for interpretation or argument. Maybe it was just a slow news day, and incendiary remarks make for good filler.

Should a business be forbidden to terminate an employee or spokesman whose comments or behavior may reflect negatively on the company or even do material damage? If you think there is legitimately anything debatable about this (as clearly some people do) I'd love to hear your arguments.

Flickr photo courtesy of gongus, CC 2.0

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