Bell’s firing not First Amendment issue

By: Rebekah Devorak | Opinions Editor 

God bless America: The Land of the Free, where 33 percent of this nation has no idea what those freedoms even mean.

That’s according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Newseum in Washington D.C. But no need to travel the Beltway; we’ve seen this fact play out right here in Pittsburgh over the last week.

Wendy Bell, a broadcast journalist for over 18 years at local station WTAE, was fired on March 30 for comments she made in a Facebook post earlier that week. The post was written in the aftermath of the March 9 shooting in Wilkinsburg that left six people, including an unborn child, dead.

In the post, published on her WTAE-affiliated page and not her personal account, Bell conjured up tired stereotypes of the shooters being “young black men” who have “multiple siblings from multiple fathers.” She then went on to talk about someone in a restaurant that she thought was “going to make it” and who should give the community “hope” – an “African-American teen hustling like nobody’s business.”

Whether or not she meant it to be racist isn’t relevant. But given that Bell is a television reporter who is supposed to be relaying the news objectively without personal opinion — and is certainly not supposed to broadcast those opinions on a station Facebook page — it’s not surprising that she was fired.

What is surprising, though, is the sheer amount of folks who were downright furious over her dismissal for the wrong reasons.

On the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Facebook post of the news of her firing, there were over 2,500 comments. The vast majority of them were seething, and practically each one pointed to how Bell’s firing was a violation of her first amendment right to free speech.

One post referred to the “emotional cowards” this society has become. Others groaned over “political correctness.” Another went so far as to call WTAE a “Marxist/communist news station” for firing Bell.

It seems as though everyone using freedom of speech in defense of Bell is utterly clueless as to what that actually means. Sadly, that accusation might not be too far off; the same 2015 study showed that only 57 percent knew the right was guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Even fewer could explain it.

According to the United States’ Constitution, the First Amendment guarantees citizens that “congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” The U.S. Embassy’s website clarifies this further, stating the document “embodies the notion that an individual [can] express himself freely — without fear of government punishment.”

This means Barack Obama can’t issue an FBI manhunt for Bell’s arrest because he personally didn’t like her Wilkinsburg post. This also means that, as much as he would want to should he become president, Donald Trump can’t throw anyone in prison for tweeting memes about his hair.

But the First Amendment does not protect Bell from losing her job for saying something that conflicted entirely with WTAE’s code of ethics as a news station. WTAE is not government-owned, so the company can pretty much do whatever it sees fit to handle situations like Bell’s.

Let’s just repeat this one a few times so we all remember: Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences of your speech.

Perhaps people are so livid because they’ve watched Bell for almost two decades, and they’ve grown attached to her. That’s understandable. But it says a lot about this city that most of its inhabitants are willing to defend someone they’ve only seen on television rather than hold her accountable for words that attack the neighbors they interact with daily.

After all, if Bell worked in any other job and made these comments on that affiliated Facebook page, her firing wouldn’t even be a question.