It was fascinating to see the New York Times lash out in a lead editorial on Monday against the notion that one’s job status might carry a price when it comes to free public expression. “Implying that players give up their right to free speech when they put on a uniform may well strike a responsive chord in Mr. Trump’s base, and among faithful acolytes like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who said players should keep their mouths shut in the workplace,” huffed the Times, referring to the controversy over football players refusing to stand for the national anthem and to the president’s response.
Of Colin Kaepernick, who more or less started the uprising, the Times added: “It might well have been a huge victory for free speech and the cause of racial justice he has so bravely espoused.”
All well and good. But it was hard to read those words without remembering having worked for 12 years at the Times under speech restrictions far more confining than those being advocated by Donald Trump.
Specifically, the Times policy on public speech and advocacy was laid out in a document called Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for News and Editorial Departments. All editorial employees were required to read it on being hired, and periodically to refresh their acquaintance with the in-house law. And the rule book left no doubt about one thing: Players at the Times surrendered a considerable portion of their speech rights when they put on the company uniform.
The toughest prohibitions were contained in Section 5, covering “Participation in Public Life.” Seeking public office was strictly verboten. Political campaigning was out. Even lawn signs were forbidden, no matter who in the family might be responsible for them. Staff members were warned that “a bumper sticker on the family car or a campaign sign on the lawn may be misread as theirs, no matter who in the household actually placed the sticker or the sign.”
As for causes of any kind, advocacy was pretty much banned. “Staff members may not march or rally in support of public causes or movements, sign ads taking a position on public issues, or lend their names to public campaigns, benefit dinners or similar events if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times’s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news,” said the handbook. (Taking a knee in the press box would seem to be covered.)
There was even a warning that staff members must never publicly express views “that go beyond what they would be allowed to say in the paper.” Given that the paper was heavily edited, that was a rough one.
Other papers have enforced similar policies. At the Wall Street Journal, where I worked earlier, my bureau chief even suggested that reporters, to preserve strict neutrality, probably shouldn’t vote, though he never pushed the point. So Monday’s loud defense of free expression by employees—football players, journalists or others– rings just a tiny bit hollow.
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