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Opinion: Rob Schneider is paying the price for exercising his free-speech rights

Actor Rob Schneider is understandably miffed about State Farm dropping him from its advertisements because of his controversial opinions on childhood vaccinations. I mean, if Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey can revive Hans and Franz on State Farm’s dime, why can’t Schneider get a bit more airtime as the Richmeister?

Actually, if Schneider’s beef stemmed purely from envy, he’d be on more solid ground. But the complaint he aired on Twitter is that his free-speech rights are being quashed, and he’s wrong both on the letter and the spirit of the law.

The 1st Amendment’s guarantee bars only governments, not private companies such as State Farm, from “abridging the freedom of speech.” So, technically, his rights under the law weren’t affected.

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What’s really at issue is State Farm’s tolerance - and by extension, society’s tolerance - for contrary views. And on the former point, it’s easy to defend what State Farm did. Companies have wide latitude to choose who speaks for them. If State Farm doesn’t want to associate its brand with a view on public health that many potential customers regard as kooky, that’s the insurer’s call to make.

Unfortunately for Schneider, critics of his views on vaccine safety (or rather, the lack thereof) made sure State Farm knew about them soon after its commercials revived the Richmeister. They rallied like-minded Facebook users to pester the company, which quickly recognized the unflattering optics of an insurance company associating itself with someone who’d called the government’s push to vaccinate children “something out of an Orwellian nightmare or something out of Nazi Germany” - even if State Farm is far better known for its auto and home policies than its health coverage.

But what about society’s tolerance for contrary views? Why should it be OK for those who disagree with Schneider to cost him a job (and, presumably, a goodly amount of money) because he took the opposite side in a policy dispute?

This is the only aspect of the episode that troubles me. Given my druthers, I’d rather see the junk science touted by the anti-vaccine crowd overwhelmed by better data and sounder arguments from those who support vaccination.

Schneider wasn’t talking about vaccines on the commercials, he was talking about making copies. The only connection between the Richmeister’s reappearance and Schneider’s personal beliefs is the fact that State Farm sells health insurance, and so has a vested interest in people not following Schneider’s off-camera advice. Yet the conflict of interest is so clear, State Farm wasted no time dumping him.

The bottom line here is that society has never had much tolerance for speech that harms people - especially when the harm is physical. To those who worry about the resurgence of whooping cough, which can be deadly to infants, railing against vaccination is akin to yelling “Fire!” in jest in a crowded theater.

The analogy isn’t quite apt; Schneider and his allies on the anti-vaccination side believe there very well may be a fire. Still, to Schneider’s critics, there’s no comparison between the small risk posed by vaccines and the very large risk to a community if it loses its herd immunity because too many kids go unvaccinated.

Would Schneider’s critics have remained mum if he were pitching light beer or fast food? Or do they believe that it’s their duty to keep him out of the public eye, period? The only way to know is if another advertiser decides to take a chance on Schneider. For better or worse, we live at a time when every public utterance is preserved forever in the amber of the Net. Not only can Schneider not “unring the bell” of his anti-vaccine advocacy, Google and YouTube keep the bell reverberating.

Follow Healey’s intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey


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