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In response to musician Hank Williams Jr.’s comparison of a meeting between Barak Obama and John Boehner to a golf game between Adolf Hitler and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ESPN pulled Williams’ 20-year-old opening song “All My Rowdy Friends” from its “Monday Night Football” telecast. In a statement made to the press on Sunday afternoon, ESPN explained its decision:
“While Hank Williams, Jr. is not an ESPN employee, we recognize that he is closely linked to our company through the open to Monday Night Football. We are extremely disappointed with his comments, and as a result we have decided to pull the open from tonight’s telecast.”
The First Amendment does not limit a corporation’s rights to curtail employees’ or colleagues’ exercises of free speech. So, if ESPN wants to cease its broadcast of a song that has become as much a part of American lore as baseball and apple pie, it is in no danger of withstanding a First Amendment lawsuit, even if the contents of that song and its performer’s political comment are entirely unrelated.
Still, shouldn’t have ESPN – a media-based citizen corporation that routinely enjoys the same 1st Amendment protections afforded to individuals – handled Williams’ jarring political statement (but just a statement nonetheless) a little differently? Wasn’t it also ESPN that published a highly controversial, if not racially offensive, rendition of Michael Vick with a white face under the auspices of the First Amendment?
Why can’t ESPN issue a statement “while we consider Williams’s political expression to be highly inoffensive, we acknowledge that his music is unrelated to it, and will continue to play it while at the same time admonish Williams on how to represent his opinions in a more politically sensitive manner.” Wouldn’t that be sufficient to maintain ESPN’s self-image of credibility, while at the same time showing a more thorough respect for the 1st Amendment?
In any event, Hank Williams Jr., despite his brash and unseemly comment, seems to have a pretty solid understanding of the spirit of the First Amendment. Williams didn’t apologize for what he said. Rather, he explained himself sincerely:
“Some of us have strong opinions and are often misunderstood. My analogy was extreme — but it was to make a point. I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me — how ludicrous that pairing was. They’re polar opposites and it made no sense. They don’t see eye-to-eye and never will. I have always respected the office of the president.”
Let’s hope that ESPN’s appreciation of the First Amendment is on par with that of Williams’, and that ESPN continues to play Williams’ music irrespective of the politically insensitive way Williams’ chooses to express his political beliefs.