Free Speech, Business and Donald Trump

Business, especially big business, has a complex relationship with free speech. On the one hand, companies like to be able to advertise their products and they like to be able to contribute money to the candidates of their choice. On the other, many feel the need to police their employees’ speech for fear of either offending other employees or their customers or both. In the US, while companies enjoy First Amendment protections for their speech, they are under no obligation to extend those protections to their employees or to users of their products. Twitter or Facebook are perfectly entitled to shut down the accounts of anyone they chose and there is no “free speech” legal leverage to protect those accounts. Firing an employee for expressing opinions at odds with a company’s diversity policy is on iffier legal ground (as Google is likely going to find out) but not for 1st Amendment reasons.

The CEOs of big companies have an odd relationship to free speech. They are, after all, the public face of their company and where they chose to place themselves may have an impact on that company. If they sit on a charitable board or a government advisory commission they may be accused of supporting the more controversial positions taken by that board or government. Which is why, when the furor over Trumps various remarks on Charlottesville blew up, a number of CEOs announced they were leaving his business advisory councils. So many that Trump has shut down the councils.

A couple of points. First, dropping off the advisory councils was a weird sort of virtue signalling on the part of the CEOs. They wanted to be seen to be putting daylight between themselves and Trump’s alledged support for, or lack of effective condemnation of, Nazis, white supremacist and the other eviltons who marched on the right in Charlottesville. And, because the entire Charlottesville furor has been framed as binary, had they not done so they were open to being accused of supporting Nazis. Better to go because the left is in full smear mode.

But there is another element to this: what was a populist President doing with councils composed of CEOs in the first place? An American President from either party is well advised to cultivate relationships with business leaders. But formalizing that into councils is unnecessary. In normal course the CEOs will try to meet with the President to push their agendas.

It is a mark of the general incoherence of the Trump administration that these councils were created in the first place. By all means have the occasional, informal, round table but what is the point of a business council with formal membership and, therefore, the possibility of formal resignation?

Business councils are the stuff of GOPe and guys who worked at Goldman Sachs. They are the very sort of thing Trump ran against. The Bannonite faction in the White House (and yes I do know Bannon worked for Goldman) was pushed out of the way when the councils were set up. Now that they are gone it might be a good idea for Bannon and his people to come up with a less formal, more effective, way for Trump to get the business perspective on the affairs of the nation.

 

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