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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

Peterson: When are you ‘off the clock?’ In this digital era, perhaps never

Jemele Hill
Jemele Hill

Where are the boundaries?

That’s the question at the crux of so many issues in the news recently.

When social media sprang onto the Internet landscape, it didn’t come with a set of rules. Schools, and employers, have been kind of working on policies on the fly, and the parameters seem to be shifting almost by the day.

For example, local kids learned the longstanding theory that a team’s conduct policy extends beyond the borders of school property, even if criminal action was not conducted. Whether the school also has authority to impose further sanctions raises another question among some, but I’ll defer to the legal system on that one.

More clear-cut is the policy regarding a couple of items in the Des Moines news Monday. Drake University President Marty Martin alerted staff and students Sunday that someone carved a swastika into a campus elevator and left a racist message outside an African-American student’s dorm room.

And, someone’s finger spelled out something on a dirty car in the Waukee High School parking lot that violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy.

Those are things that occurred on the property of those institutions, and there are clear policies noting penalties for such violations.

That takes me to the Jemele Hill situation last week at ESPN.

Hill started her career as a sportswriter on the student newspaper at Michigan State and then the Detroit Free Press. Her columns were brash and sometimes controversial, and ESPN must have noted she was capable of moving the needle, so she started appearing on the Sunday morning opinion show, “The Sports Reporters.”

More recently, she was hired to host a “new-look” 6 p.m. SportsCenter show with Michael Smith.

Hill rose to that position because of the strong personality she presents in a public forum. But, then, the genesis of some of those opinions got her in deep water at ESPN last week when she tweeted that President Donald Trump is a white supremacist during an exchange with someone while using her personal Twitter account.

ESPN issued a statement the next day, reprimanding her comments. That spilled over to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stating that Hill’s tweets were a “fireable offense.”

Hill ended up doing the next show, but also issued a public apology stating that she regretted that her personal beliefs had painted ESPN in an unfair light.

There is a history at ESPN for taking even more severe action. Baseball analyst Curt Schiling had reportedly been warned several times about inflammatory posts on Facebook or Twitter, and eventually lost his job. Linda Cohn had made a comment about ESPN’s politics, and “sat out” a short period from any air time shortly thereafter, although an official suspension was never announced.

So, the ultimate question is, when is a person “on the clock” and when do First Amendment rights and the ability to be your own person kick in? Does firing someone who voices their thoughts in an open forum set a precedent for tyranny among big employers? It’s a slippery slope.

Some have told me you are “always representing” your team or your company, and I’ve come around to think society is moving in that direction. In ESPN’s case, it’s for business reasons.

There are more than 60 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump, and most of them don’t appreciate being lumped into the “racist” category. If Hill alienates half of the potential audience as her comments became well-circulated, then the corporation that has lost nearly 3 million subscribers in the last year sees further problems ahead.

Young people are discontinuing their cable subscriptions in favor of streaming options. ESPN can’t afford to lose much of its remaining base.

Hence, we are going down the road where employers presume to have some rights in controlling us in our off hours. That’s what clear, written policies need to address.

At our company, it was understood that when I was a news reporter commonly covering appearances of candidates and elections, that it would be inappropriate to write opinions pertaining to any of those people or issues. It would erode credibility of fair coverage.

Now paid as an opinion columnist on this page, and a feature article writer, what I post in social media goes hand in hand with what I’m paid to do. There is no conflict of interest. (That’s somewhat clouded now by the “temporary” sports writing gig that started in June, because of staff shortages.)

In Hill’s case, she was raised by a single mother with addiction issues, coming up in the hard neighborhoods of Houston and Detroit. Her experience is nothing like mine. So, when she posted an opinion that laid some of blame for this environment of mean spiritedness, of hatred and divisiveness on the doorstep of the White House where she thought it belongs, I’m not about to claim she doesn’t have the right to hold that opinion.

When things occur in sports, such as the national anthem protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick, then sports and politics intersect and become fodder for shows like the one Hill and Smith host for a public audience.

The big thing, I think, is HOW you present the opinion. In Hill’s case, when you have millions of people watching your every move in such a public capacity, then maybe a more refined set of sentences could have presented her views without ESPN choking on its steak that night and scurrying to issue a public reprimand.

Does the company you’re considering hire and fire people based on personal social media use, or are they more lenient in deference to the First Amendment free speech rights? You need to know going in.

I know we have perused social media of job prospects, so a good time to clean out the timeline might be just before submitting the resume. Just saying.

Perhaps the existence of these sanctions is a good way to police the social media landscape from evolving into constant name-calling and mean-spirited chaos.

The level of civility is eroding in this country by the day, it seems. So, anything that would cause one to pause and reflect before clicking “Post” might be a good thing.

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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