The 'Roseanne' reaction: What protections does the First Amendment actually afford?

Roseanne Barr attends the
Roseanne Barr attends the "Roseanne" premiere at Walt Disney Studios on March 23, 2018, in Burbank, Calif.
Valerie Macon | AFP | Getty Images

Updated: 5:55 p.m. | Posted: 5:04 p.m.

In the small hours of Tuesday morning, comedian and TV star Roseanne Barr crafted this tweet:

"Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj."

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She was referring to Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to the Obama administration.

Jarrett is African-American, and the tweet was widely seen as hateful and racist.

In the social media storm that followed, ABC executives decided to cancel the reboot of Barr's hit show "Roseanne" after just one season.

Responses to Barr's tweet, and the subsequent cancellation of her show, have ranged widely: from calling her a "whacked out racist cretin ..."

... to a Twitter campaign to boycott ABC over the move — #BoycottABC.

Barr has since apologized for her tweet, and claimed she was using the sleeping drug Ambien when she wrote it. Ambien's manufacturer Sanofi responded in a tweet of its own: "While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication."

But the public outcry raises questions about free speech.

Mainly, what protections does the First Amendment actually afford?

Some of Barr's defenders claim the cancellation of "Roseanne," was a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech. According to Steve Aggergaard, a First Amendment expert and professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, that's not true.

"This is a common misconception," he said. "The First Amendment almost always applies only to when the government tries to restrict someone's speech. The government is not involved here."

Essentially, Barr is free to tweet inflammatory statements, and since ABC is a private entity, it's free to cancel her show.

In the heat of the Twitter battle, some used that very piece of constitutional law to compare Barr to Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice — sparking a controversial movement.

Less than a week ago, the National Football League banned protests during the national anthem. Players who kneel during the anthem on the field will now be subject to punishment, and their teams will be fined.

It was an unpopular move among social progressives, but Barr's defenders argue if ABC is within its rights then so is the NFL.

Others point out the inherent difference between racial tweets and a silent protest.

It's a complicated time for free speech, according to Aggergaard.

"The framers of the First Amendment could not have seen Twitter coming," he said. "It was drafted with the idea that those who hold the keys to the pressroom have immense power. And now, we all have our own keys. With just a few thumb strokes, we can do so much damage. "

In this case, much of that damage was likely done to Barr's own reputation.

Davia Temin runs Temin and Company, a Manhattan-based reputation and crisis management firm. She repairs reputations for a living, and says Barr is beyond hope.

"I believe in the comeback," she said. "This is America. We all do. Roseanne is not coming back. This tweet was egregious enough, there's no coming back from that."

Temin said Barr's apologies came too late.

"These days, you have 15 minutes to get ahead of something like this," she said. "After that, the internet has taken over."

Correction (May 30, 2018): An earlier version of this story misspelled Temin and Company.