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Brand Protection: Did Disney Go Too Far In Letting Hank Williams, Jr., Go?

6 November 2011 3 Comments

Editor’s Note:  Today, we hear from contributor and attorney John Marchese.  While the flap regarding ESPN’s firing of Hank Williams, Jr., from Monday Night Football has quieted down, we feel like the subject requires a little examination. 

If there were any doubts about how serious Disney takes its image, they were extinguished by the recent termination of Hank Williams, Jr. from Monday Night Football.

The well-documented flap over Williams’ comparison of a round of golf involving President Obama and Speaker of the House, John Boehner to a hypothetical match involving Adolf Hitler and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has stimulated a debate about whether Disney should have terminated Williams for voicing his opinion.

Williams, whose song parody, All My Rowdy Friends, had been part of the opening of Monday Night Football since 1991, was fired by Disney/ESPN because of his use of an analogy involving President Obama and Adolf Hitler.

Some think Disney overreacted by cutting ties so quickly with Williams. Others claim the termination is just another example of Disney using its size to push around others who can’t push back.

Another popular anti-Disney position, however, is that by terminating Williams, Disney violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

Williams appeared on the ABC morning talk show, The View, a few days after the controversy arose and said that “ESPN (stepped) on the toes of freedom of speech…” On his website, Williams again claimed that “ESPN stepped on the toes of the First Amendment…”

But Disney’s action is about brand protection, not freedom of speech.

The First Amendment does not protect speech in private interactions. You can be fired for saying something that tarnishes your employer’s image. Simply put, this is not a Constitutional issue.

To Disney, the divorce with Williams was a no-brainer. Had Disney failed to act, it would have been interpreted, not as an acknowledgment of Williams’ right to voice his opinion, but as an implicit agreement with that opinion. Disney has an absolute obligation to its shareholders and to protect its brand. It had both the right and responsibility to distance itself and its valuable Monday Night Football franchise from Williams and his unfortunate juxtaposition of President Obama and Adolf Hitler.

Williams recently appeared on Fox News Channel’s Fox and Friendsand was asked about the now infamous foursome involving Obama, Boehner, Vice President Joe Biden and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Williams, never reluctant to share his opinion, called the gathering “one of the biggest political mistakes ever.” A Republican Party supporter, Williams made the point that Obama and Biden are “the enemy” and, as such, Boehner should not have fraternized with them.

“It’d be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu,” Williams reasoned.

Right or wrong; agree or disagree, the larger issue is whether Williams had a right to make the analogy (he did), and whether Disney had the right to bench him as a result (it did).

Williams is the latest in a long line of celebrities who have been fired as spokesmen for products or companies because they said something that, in the companies’ opinion, cast a negative light on the company or the product.

Earlier this year, comedian Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck after sending several tasteless and offensive tweets inspired by the Japan tsunami tragedy. Unlike Williams, Gottfried issued a seemingly heartfelt apology. But even that wasn’t enough to save his job.

Williams, too, apologized, but his apology seemed forced and insincere. It is one thing to insult the President of the United States, but Williams compounded his blunder.

On Disney’s own network, he made the unforgivable mistake of insulting the boss.

“The bottom line, folks, is Mickey is a mean mouse,” Williams said.

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  • James said:

    Since the court has no understanding of the words “Congress shall make no law” means leaves who the first amendment really applies to anyone’s guess. Williams was just repeating popular dysfunctional first amendment mantra.

  • Shirazz said:

    Hank was not an employee of Disney and therefore couldnt be terminated by Disney.

  • John Marchese (author) said:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, James.

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