ESPN Need Not Have Suspended Jemele Hill

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If employees make it clear they’re speaking as private citizens, then companies won’t need policies that threaten the exercise of free speech. 

Courtesy: Twitter

Two strikes, perhaps…. On Monday, ESPN suspended sportscaster and studio host, Jemele Hill, for a second politically-connected incident on social media. This time it was for suggesting a boycott of vendors and advertisers associated with NFL mogul Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys.

Hill tweeted her recommendation to the public following Jones’ proclamation that Cowboys’ players ought not to engage in protests during the playing of The National Anthem. The penalty for transgressing, said Jones? Benching.

It’s the second time recently that ESPN spoke out publicly about Hill—this time taking action—regarding her use of social media to express political points of view. The first time Hill expressed her opinion in a series of tweets, declaring President Trump and his associates to be White supremacists.

Courtesy: Long View

Hill apologized to the network for that incident and ESPN accepted her apology. The network didn’t suspend or fired her, but ESPN’s John Skipper used the incident to remind employees of the company’s policy. Skipper said: “[W]e have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN. At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal.”

While Hill—as any other American—has a right to express an opinion, the challenge is that Hill’s expressions are being tied to her employment and employer. There’s good reason for that, too. Hill’s Twitter account, @gemelehill, blends personal and professional identities: “Co-host of the 6 pm SportsCenter, aka ‘The Six.’ Born and raised in Detroit. Grew up at Michigan State.”

Should ESPN have suspended Hill? I think the answer is ‘yes,’ given the company’s social media policy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if ESPN fires her if it happens again.

But I don’t like ESPN’s policy (it’s needless), and I don’t like the way Hill contributed to the situation (by mingling personal with professional).

Courtesy: Dissent

What’s the solution? ESPN (and all employers) need to avoid policies that penalize free speech. For that to happen, though, employees (like Hill) need to decouple what they say in social media from the place where they work. For Hill, that means two things: 1) not identifying herself as an ESPN employee on her social media accounts, and 2) declaring that views expressed on social media are personal views only. That done, companies (like ESPN) would have no reason to sanction Hill via public reprimand, suspension, or firing.

When I was responsible for such matters, I made it very clear to employees that they should not communicate with the public—especially in writing—using reference to their employed positions. It’s too easy for the public to interpret employee proclamations as employer’s stances. Let the CEO or her/his designee communicate organizational positions. Employees should communicate as private citizens. To do that, I told employees to identify themselves by city of residence—not by position title and/or employer.


All that said, I believe the Hill situation should not have ended in a suspension. If Hill can’t speak her mind, that means she has sacrificed free speech in exchange for employment.

The answer? Media personalities—and every other employed American—have the right to express personal opinions as private citizens. In doing so, employees need to make it clear that they aren’t speaking for their companies. Furthermore, companies should not engage in recrimination when employees speak as private citizens.

By the same token, let companies take positions of choice  – just as CEO/owner Jones did for the Cowboys. Whether we endorse those positions is another matter entirely–a matter to be dealt with through the exercise of free speech.


About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.

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