During Wednesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for ESPN to fire Jemelle Hill after Hill unleashed a series of tweets in which she called Donald Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists,” and, “the most ignorant, offensive president” of her lifetime.
“I’m not sure if he’s aware,” Sanders said when asked by Washington Post White House reporter David Nakamura, whether or not the president had seen Hill’s Monday tweetstorm. “I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN,“ she added.
It was a bone-chilling moment. The White House press secretary openly called for a private company to fire an individual citizen for expressing her views on Twitter. Even more glaring is that Hill is a black female journalist, a walking amalgam of a race, a gender and a profession that Trump and his administration have shown open contempt for over the course of his tenure.
The good news is that ESPN unlikely to capitulate. The company—which is still figuring out how to navigate being a neutral media company in the polarizing pick-a-side Trump era—botched a press release in which it threw Hill under the bus for her comments in an attempt to keep its pro-Trump viewers at bay. It was a spineless move on ESPN’s part but basically amounted to a slap on the wrist for Hill, an award-winning journalist and one of the company’s most popular on-air personalities.
If ESPN does further discipline Hill, it risks facing the wrath of the hordes of influential public figures who’ve already come to her defense, as well as free speech activists.
The real issue here is not whether or not Hill will still have a job by the end of the week. She will. It’s that the country’s executive branch called for one of its own citizens to lose their job because of tweets it found distasteful. This is unprecedented for a nation that prides itself on the First Amendment, and whose government’s job it is to defend that amendment. Imagine for a second, that someone in the Obama administration called for NBC to cancel The Apprentice because its host started the Birther movement. It would have been seen as a gross abuse of power, and rightly so. Sanders’ remarks are no different, and set a dangerous precedent for the country moving forward. Hill hasn’t tweeted since 8 a.m. on Tuesday. Whether or not this is a personal choice, or one imposed on her by her employer, one of the sports world’s most vocal members has effectively been muzzled.