Hotel Fires Employee For Calling Someone A “Slut” Online. Is This A Free Speech Issue?


Content warning: Misogynistic online harassment, including rape threats.

I want to respond to a comment left by Desipis, but to do that, I’ll need to bring in some context.

Clementine Ford is a feminist columnist from Australia. Various misogynists have contacted her to say abusive things, and – if the person contacting her hasn’t covered up their identity – she publicly outs them. For instance, this summer, Ford outed a man who emailed her “I’m going to bash and rape you stupid little sl**. Lesbian scum.” The man apologized, and (ironically) was subjected to strangers sending him horrible messages and threats (which I don’t approve of). Around the same time, three high school boys were suspended after Ford reposted misogynistic and racist messages they’d left on her Facebook page.

According to Ford, “It’s not unusual for me to field abuse like this, although it tends to be more of a constant drip than a deluge.” But this week, it’s a deluge. Because Michael Nolan got fired.

A bit more context. On Ford’s Facebook page, Ford posted a screenshot of someone telling her “You would jibber heaps less with a cock in your mouth.” Michael Nolan left a single-word response to this on Ford’s Facebook page: “Slut.”

In a follow-up post, Ford posted a screenshot of Nolan’s “slut” comment, along with screenshots of him reposting or agreeing with a couple of racist jokes. She linked her post to the Facebook page of Nolan’s employer, Meriton Apartments – meaning that whoever runs Meriton’s facebook page would be notified about her post. Ford wrote:

This was a comment left on the thread of a screenshot of a man publicly saying I would jibber less with a cock in my mouth. Calling me ‘slut’ in response to that is baffling, unless this man genuinely believes that women who speak out against abuse need to be taken down. Why should I put up with that?

There are basically no consequences for men who behave like this, so we have to start making consequences for them.

Five days later, Meriton contacted Ford to let her know they’d fired Norton. Ford wrote:

To anyone who suggests I have caused a man to lose his job, I’d like to say this: No. He is responsible for his actions. He is responsible for the things he writes and the attitudes he holds. It is not my responsibility to hold his hand and coddle him when he behaves in an abusive manner just because it might have consequences for him. Women are often told to stay silent about harassment because it’s not fair to ‘ruin a man’s career’. Why is their behaviour our responsibility? Enough. If you enjoy exercising misogyny online, you only have yourself to blame if the people with power over your life – your bosses, friends, family etc – decide that they don’t want to be associated with you anymore. The targets of your abuse are in no way, shape or form responsible for making sure your actions have no recriminations for you.

In the open thread, referring to how employers can be a threat to free speech, Desipis commented:

On that topic, Clemintine Ford has demonstrated again how many people thing being for social justice is about being as big an arsehole as you can be.

To those that argue freedom of speech isn’t about being protected against consequences, I’ll say it’s not about that, it’s about disproportionate responses.

That guy that takes a swing at you for looking at his girlfriend the “wrong way”? Arsehole.
The woman that calls the cops on a man in the park with a camera, or for being black? Arsehole.
Pushing for someone to be fired because they said a nasty word online? Arsehole.

So, a few thoughts:

1) I want to get to the free speech question, but I can’t not comment on Desipis’ jaw-dropping false equivalency between someone being irrationally harassed for being black, or being assaulted for looking at someone, versus someone being fired because of their own bad behavior. Maybe Michael Nolan shouldn’t have been fired, but he’s certainly not blameless here.

2) It’s good to get the idea of “disproportionate responses” into this discussion.

3) I can’t judge Michael Nolan as an entire person, because I have no idea. Maybe calling someone a slut and sharing two racist jokes is the worst thing that Nolan has ever done. (Who among us has never said or shared anything regrettable online?) Or maybe he’s consistently a hostile, abusive racist misogynist, and his bosses were already on the verge of firing him. Maybe the firing was completely fair. We just don’t know.

4) But if the firing was unfair, then blame should mainly lie with Michael Nolan’s former boss, not Clementine Ford.

5) If we’re going to be casting judgements on Clementine Ford – and that’s where Desipis and many others are taking this – then let’s acknowledge that Ford wasn’t just responding to Michael Nolan’s comment. She’s responding to a seemingly never-ending stream of misogynistic abuse. (For lots of examples, check out the repulsive comments Ford’s received since Nolan’s firing.)

If I think of it as just this one incident, then yes, responding to an online insult by reporting it to Nolan’s employer is disproportionate. But if I think of it as an ongoing problem – people (mostly men) are persistently sending her online abuse because they have no incentive to stop – then Ford’s policy of outing her harassers, when she can, seems like the only tool she has for creating a disincentive for harassers.

In the comments of the Open Thread, Grace asked Desipis a very telling question:

Out of curiosity, what would you rather Ford had done, other than ignore it? She has already tried to use Facebook’s feedback mechanism to address comments far worse than that. Facebook user “Mathew Harris” wrote, “Clementine you are the most annoying feminist slut to have ever walked the earth. Please sit on a butchers [sic] knife so that you may never be able to reproduce.” Facebook’s response: “We reviewed the comment you reported for containing hate speech or symbols and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.”

Is Ford supposed to meekly accept being a punching bag for misogynistic comments for the rest of her life? Why expect women, in the face of nonstop abuse, to act like saints, putting their abusers’ well-being before their own? Why would Ford owe Nolan and all her other abusers that level of consideration?

Michael Nolan is literally someone who saw a stranger complaining about misogynistic harassment, and his response was to call her a “slut.” Even if contacting someone’s boss is disproportionate – and I think it is – the root problem here is Nolan’s behavior, not Ford’s.

Now, about free speech….

6) Obviously, if we define “free speech” narrowly as only about government actions, then there’s no free speech issue here. But that’s not how I define it, and I see two free speech issues here.

First, it’s a problem when employers punish employees for what they say in their off-hours. It’s an incredibly bad idea for employers to act as speech police. Being fired for saying something offensive is, in most jobs,1 a disproportionate response. And it’s one that has the potential to chill the speech of anyone who can’t afford to lose their job.

There’s already too much of this sort of thing going on. Anything that normalizes the belief that employers should punish the off-work speech of their employers is harmful – not just to Michael Nolan, but to the free speech of everyone with a boss.

7) Second, online harassment is a huge free speech issue. Constant online abuse shuts people up – and that’s the goal of the harassers. Misogynistic harassment shuts women up – and that’s the goal of the harassers.

I personally know multiple women who avoid discussing controversies online – even controversies that they feel passionately about and have a lot to say about – not because they’re afraid of reasoned disagreement, but because they’ve seen the over-the-top abuse heaped on Clementine Ford, and Anita Sarkeesian, and Zoe Quinn, and Irene Gallo, and Brianna Wu, and Adria Richards, and Kathy Sierra, and so many more, and they’ve made the perfectly rational choice not to take that risk.

Clementine Ford appears to have skin thick as a bank vault, and says she won’t be deterred from speaking. Good for her! But being as resilient as Ford shouldn’t be a requirement for discussing controversial issues online. Free speech only for those with a Ford-like ability to withstand tons of abuse, isn’t free speech.

  1. I can think of some exceptions – for example, a politician’s campaign manager. But in general. []
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301 Responses to Hotel Fires Employee For Calling Someone A “Slut” Online. Is This A Free Speech Issue?

  1. 301
    veronica d says:

    You know, it would be pretty bad to have a general rule: “Always fire a white power advocate merely for being same.” However, that does not imply the opposite: “Never fire a white power advocate merely for being same.”

    It’s complicated. That said, “Never fire a person merely for being X,” seems like a good rule for many values of X. However, I’m not prepared to automatically extend it to all values of X.

    Rules don’t work this way. At least, they don’t need to. People act as if they can, and sometimes as if they should, but I don’t see why.

    I mean, I get the logic. Moral reasoning is hard. Our intuitions seem to lead us astray. Simple rules are easy. If we can agree on a set…

    Of course, we cannot agree on a set, but never mind that.


    I’m okay with Nazis getting a raw deal. I’m okay if they find it hard to find employment. That’s fine with me.

    This is unlike trans people finding it hard to find employment, because there is nothing wrong with being trans whereas there is much wrong with being a Nazi.

    “But veronica,” you say, “surely our enemies will do the same to us. If we can fire them, then they can fire us. If we use this logic against them, they will turn it around and use it against us.”

    Tell me something I don’t know. Of course they will do these things. They’ve been doing it since forever.

    That’s not a good argument. It flies in face of the facts.

    Society is not harmonious. Yes, a certain level of harmony is good. We should all want that. Straight people and gay people can work side by side. Black people and white people can together do the same jobs. Obviously. Likewise, people can disagree on deep ideas, such as the meaning of life or the existence of God.

    Regarding these latter thing, Harmony is not always easy. The nature of God and meaning is a big deal. Such disagreements are major. But over the years people have found ways to be harmonious.

    But not everyone has. The Nazi has not. He thinks I’m subhuman. He advocates this. He shouts it loud — but maybe only when he feels safe.

    The point is, honestly, can we be harmonious with him, when my mere existence offends him?

    I don’t know. That’s a hard question. That said, if an employer chooses not to take the risk, I’m okay with that. I’m not saying every employer should do that, since rules don’t work that way. But still, I have zero sympathy for the Nazi. None.

    He hated me first.

    And people who try to turn this logic around, to drop it on trans people (or whoever) — they’re just wrong, not to mention terrible. Don’t be afraid to fight them.

    We just might win.