Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Fox News, Tiffany Haddish and Why Not All Free Speech Is Equal — or Healthy

THR Illustration-pbc.final4-Illustration by Adam Nickel-H 2019
Adam Nickel

From NFL players kneeling in protest to outrage over Fox News' Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson, the "freedom of speech" argument has been deployed by many agendas in the Trump age.

In December, Tiffany Haddish posted a chipper Instagram video of herself wearing a fox fur vest while explaining, "I'm going to wear fur every day until they stop killing black people. When the police stop killing black people, I'll stop wearing fur. It's my new protest. So sorry PETA, don't be mad at me, be mad at the police." The post drew both support and ire in the name of "free speech."

In recent weeks, the meaning and limits of free speech have been challenged on the sports field, in Hollywood and in the halls of government. The NFL settled the lawsuit that alleged collusion in suppressing Colin Kaepernick's and Eric Reid's right to kneel during the national anthem. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) questioned the extent of the U.S.' allegiance to Israel and was threatened with House censure. The Democratic National Committee is refusing to allow Trump-loving Fox News to host primary debates. And on March 21, Trump signed an executive order he claims will protect free speech on college campuses and allow more conservatives to be heard. While all this free speech brouhaha might indicate a robust discussion and exercise of the First Amendment, not all free speech is created equal, and not being able to judge the difference can cause great harm to America.

The DNC refusal to allow Fox to host a presidential debate is based on Fox's lack of integrity. A 2018 Knight Foundation and Gallup poll found the network tied with Breitbart as the most biased source of news. It is also fair to sideline the organization that supports malicious hate speech. On March 9, Jeanine Pirro opened her Fox show attacking Omar, a Muslim: "Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?" Fox's Tucker Carlson fares no better. In the tapes recently released of Carlson's rants from 2006 to 2011 on Bubba the Love Sponge, he expressed his beliefs that Iraq is filled with "semiliterate primitive monkeys" and women are "like dogs." Therefore, when the DNC bans Fox, it's not restricting free speech, it's refusing to legitimize a dysfunctional network that promotes disinformation and fear that verge on hate crime.

Trump's executive order, which cuts off federal research grants to institutions that don't "avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives," has the stated goal of ensuring more diverse voices have equal access. But everything he said to justify that stance was inaccurate: Conservative Hayden Williams, who Trump said took a punch in the face "for all of us," wasn't a student at UC Berkeley, where the incident occurred. Neither was the attacker. Moreover, Williams, said a Berkeley spokesperson, "had every right to be on campus." Berkeley spent $4 million in 2018 in support of controversial speakers. So, Trump's executive order wouldn't have affected the very case he cited. But it will interfere with educators who are best equipped to address this issue. In the end, the executive order does more harm than good to free speech by threatening to withhold crucial funding unless government-approved speech is promoted.

Worse, it’s difficult to listen to Trump bellow about free speech while he refers to the press as "the enemy of the people" (except for his acolytes at Fox News), berates journalists at rallies that have resulted in violence, and petulantly takes away press passes. He has tried to inhibit businesses associated with news organizations who have been critical of him, including going after Amazon (whose CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post) and the AT&T-Time Warner merger (Time Warner owns CNN). Most recently, a government list was revealed that was used to pull aside people at the border as suspected instigators. The list included 10 journalists, seven of them American citizens.

By comparison to Fox News and Trump, Haddish's fuzzy justification can seem harmless, especially when spoken by someone so charming and talented. The issue is further muddled when we consider the recent New York Times article "A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur," in which author Jasmine Sanders argues that wearing fur is a form of celebrating black culture. She suggests that the backlash against wearing fur coincided with black women's economic rise, which wearing fur announced. This might explain other black celebrities, like Cardi B, flaunting fur. But we should question doing something simply because it's tradition. Tradition is the argument of Confederate flag defenders, date rape apologists and conversion therapy advocates.

We also have to question the connection between wearing fur and stopping police brutality against people of color. If the idea is to outrage people into changing, which people are being outraged? Those committing brutality against other humans aren't going to be concerned about brutality against foxes or minks. If you're trying to outrage liberals, they're already on your side. And how does needlessly harming an animal for no other reason than to gild one's ego improve humanity? Kaepernick's kneeling during the anthem was a peaceful message that the country is not living up to the promise of its Constitution (which the anthem symbolizes). The act and the anthem are related. Haddish's form of free speech may water down the more focused attempts at fighting police brutality by making the public take the issue less seriously.

The problem starts by mistaking the fact that having the freedom to say anything means anything said has equal worth. An opinion that cannot be supported with facts and logic adds no value to the discussion. Those unable to provide either will resort to restating their opinions louder with possible references to "common sense" or "everybody knows" or "this is how it's always been done." Translation: They've got nothing. Some free speech is like some fast food, tasty but with little nutritional value, and a healthy country demands a healthy discourse.

THR columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA Hall of Famer and author of Mycroft and Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage, out Sept. 24.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.