Silenced and suspended

This article was originally published on the Brown Daily Herald and can be found here.

Last week, ESPN suspended host Jemele Hill for vocally criticizing President Trump and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Twitter. She first came into the national spotlight on Sept. 11 with a string of tweets stating, “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. He is unqualified and unfit to be president. He is not a leader. And if he were not white, he never would have been elected.” Her charged, passionate appeal reflected the feeling of many Americans, but also received considerable backlash from those who felt that Hill, as a sports journalist, had no place using her platform for politics.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, even called for Hill to be fired. Hill ultimately issued an apology, tweeting, “My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional.” While she did not apologize for the words themselves, she was pressured into contrition for doing something we all take for granted — publicly voicing her opinion on her personal social media platform.

But Hill did not remain silent for long. On Oct. 9, after Trump and Jones called for the benching of players who kneeled during the national anthem, she urged her followers to boycott NFL advertisers. Shortly after this post, ESPN gave Hill a two-week suspension for “violat(ing)” the channel’s “social media guidelines,” tacitly confirming the misplaced belief that sports are not the place for political views.

For a start, Hill’s suspension is perplexing because, in voicing her opinions on current politics, she was not acting as an agent of her company, but rather an American citizen with a personal Twitter handle. Yet the White House itself called for Hill’s termination, which sent a chilling signal across the country and encroached on her right to freedom of speech without government censorship or retaliation. While her comments were unfiltered and vehemently stated, this does not diminish the fact that she has the right to express herself. Moreover, in Connecticut, where is ESPN is based, state law protects free and uncensored speech even in the private sector.

By acting to protect their corporate reputation and revenue streams, and to placate the White House, ESPN committed an act of censorship that was inarguably a moral injustice. If ESPN had acted as a principled and supportive employer, they would have stood by Hill regardless of her decision to speak politically — especially because nothing Hill said was particularly new or outlandish. Many other public figures have come out just as passionately against the president. And because Hill, as a sports journalist, does not directly cover the White House, her political opinion does not undercut the objectivity of her reporting.

But it’s deeper than a simple ruffling of ESPN’s feathers. Silencing Hill, a black woman, by policing her social media accounts and administering her subsequent suspension feeds into the perception that women of color’s voices are not important — or perhaps too powerful and threatening — and therefore need to be suppressed. As a black woman in Trump’s America, Hill cannot avoid being affected by the president’s decisions (or Tweets, for that matter). To say that she cannot address that on her personal public platform does a disservice to both her and the greater community to which she belongs.

By stifling Hill, ESPN and the Trump administration paint the picture that “free speech” only applies to sweetened words that are sure to avoid controversy for all involved parties. This is what I would term hopscotch dialogue — cherry-picking the types of views they want to promote, jumping around the direct implication of problematic behavior and avoiding the boxes of politics in order to save face. This roundabout way of communicating is ineffective because no real issue can be solved from it. The country needs people who are willing to confront difficult issues head on, and Hill’s punishment for speaking out may influence others to keep their political thoughts private. This will lead to echo chambers where different groups discuss valuable topics only within their own circles of safety.

The point is, Hill brought an idea forward to counter an opposing force in this country and was silenced. This is unfortunate because, instead of being met with a thoughtful, responsive discourse that addressed her concerns, Hill was suspended for trying to start a conversation that most Americans need to hear.

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