Free Speech vs. Fee Speech

Some of you may have seen the story in the news over the last few days regarding the termination of actor Hartley Sawyer over comments he posted on social media eight years ago. Read the full story here.

This is not normally a story to which I would have paid much attention. Another public figure said or did something stupid years ago and is being let go from their high profile job. Of course, stupid is a subjective word. I use it because they were dumb enough to post something in public for all to see and judge. You can’t hide from a screen grab.

As we all know, this isn’t the first case. It’s one in a long list of Hollywood chiefs/showrunners and other industry captains cracking down on associations that make them look bad. It started with the #MeToo movement and keeps snowballing.

When James Gunn was fired by Disney because of tweets he wrote ten years previously, I had to roll my eyes. I didn’t see them until today while researching this article. You can read them for yourself (if you want) here. While I admit I don’t know the context, they are rather offensive. I understand Disney’s knee-jerk reaction to terminate their relationship with Gunn which has since been renewed. I’m okay with that (she whispers).

Back to Hartley. Never heard of him before now. Never watched The Flash. Do I think what he tweeted was offensive? Yes. Do I think he should have been terminated? No.

A friend of mine (male) posted the link to the news article on Facebook. What drew my interest to the story (and thus made me write this post) were the comments below it, mostly by his male friends. There were a few jokes, nothing offensive, but what irked me was they did not seem to understand why Hartley’s posts fall under Fee Speech, rather than Free Speech. Yeah, I made it up. I call it Fee Speech because he paid a heavy price for his stupid, careless and insensitive remarks. Half the commenters think the show is wrong for penalizing the exercising of his right to Free Speech. I added my own perspective by pointing out it’s a matter of acceptable work behavior, rather than the right to make asinine jokes about enjoying “a secret boob viewing at an audition today.” As an actor, Hartley’s workplace extends beyond the studio. I realize he made these posts before he’d made it big on The Flash, so few people saw them. That doesn’t make what he posted any less stupid.

One commented that a person should be given a second chance once they understand they did something wrong. That sounds reasonable to me. I mean racism, sexism, and phobisms are so new. They’ve only been around, what, a few years, right? What they’re really saying is, “Look. We know we’ve gotten away with this kind of crap for a very long time, but now you’ve changed the rules on us.”

We’ve all contributed to this culture of acceptance. And I’m not trying to man-bash here. Most of the men I’ve worked with are great guys who would come to my defense if I needed them. I’m sure at many times in their lives, they made corny, callus jokes to each other in the locker room. What happens in the locker room, should stay in the locker room. I myself know one rather dirty Muppet joke because a girl in high school used to subject me to them almost every day knowing they bothered me. She got a kick out of watching me blush. I loved the Muppets!

But seriously, perhaps a statute of limitations needs to be defined, not including a pass on words or actions which led to physical harm. Psychological harm is more difficult to evaluate and determine, so I’ll just leave that to the experts (as if I’m an expert on this subject at all). Hartley wrote some pretty stupid things, but I don’t know if they caused physical or psychological harm to anyone. He obviously offended someone. Was stirring up trouble for the actor a professional, personal or public interest? I don’t know. Let me backtrack just a bit. Huntley is responsible for his own actions. I’m not trying to make him out to be a saint by victimizing him. If he is a racist or a misogynist or any other -ist, the studio has the right not to continue their relationship with him. Doesn’t mean they don’t have other -ists among them. They’ve just been smart enough to keep their views to themselves.

I think this is more a matter of finance and reputation. Instead of firing him, they should have strongly encouraged (i.e. ordered) him to make donations to the appropriate charities, without a tax break. He made his apologies. Sincere or not, I have no idea. I do not know the man. He’s sorry to have been caught. He’s sorry to have lost his job. He’s sorry for the embarrassment. He’s sorry he was so careless with his words. I hope he is truly sorry for the things he posted.

Let me end with a recommendation. Oscar Wilde’s stage play An Ideal Husband was made into one of my favorite comedies in 1999, starring Cate Blanchett, Jeremy Northam, Minnie Driver, and Rupert Everett. Northam plays Lord Goring, a respected member of British Parliament whose success is built on the bricks of a secret scandal. At the mercy of a blackmailer, he agonizes over the choice of public humiliation and losing the love of his highly moral wife versus backing an even bigger and costly scandalous scheme. In the end, Lady Gertrude (played by Blanchett) delivers this line:

“We have all of us, feet of clay, Robert. Women, as well as men.”

While Huntley’s and Goring’s “crimes” in each case are different, the end message is the same. In Lord Goring’s case, he’s lucky the internet wasn’t around. That’s all I have to say on this matter, but I would be interested to know what you think.

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