Scott Adams’ racist tirade leads newspapers to drop his comic strip, “Dilbert” (A free-speech primer)

The “Dilbert” website is still up and running, complete with the cartoons that were slated to run in the papers Sunday and Monday. This might be the last place on earth you can find Adams’ work after his racist tirade last week.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: Dilbert creator and artist Scott Adams released a racist screed on his YouTube channel last week, leading multiple newspaper chains and independent media outlets to cut ties with him and pull his strip from publication.

Newspapers across the United States have pulled Scott Adams’s long-running “Dilbert” comic strip after the cartoonist called Black Americans a “hate group” and said White people should “get the hell away from” them.

The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the USA Today network of hundreds of newspapers were among publications that announced they would stop publishing “Dilbert” after Adams’s racist rant on YouTube on Wednesday. Asked on Saturday how many newspapers still carried the strip — a workplace satire he created in 1989 — Adams told The Post: “By Monday, around zero.”

Things got even worse for Adams on Sunday, when his distributor, Andrews McMeel Universal, publicly stated it severed ties with him.

Andrews and Sareyan said Andrews McMeel supports free speech, but the comments by the cartoonist were not compatible with the core values of the company based in Kansas City, Missouri.

“We are proud to promote and share many different voices and perspectives. But we will never support any commentary rooted in discrimination or hate,” they said in the statement posted on the company website and Twitter.

Catch Up Quickly: Adams has been slowly sliding into various danger zones since the mid-2010s.

  • In a 2011 “men’s rights” blog post, he noted: “The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone.”
  • In 2017, he said in a  podcast that he supported family separations at the border
  • After the 2019 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, he tweeted an offer to anyone who witnessed it, allowing them to “set your price” on the purchase of his app.
  • In 2020, he stated that his “Dilbert” TV show was canceled after one season because he was white, adding “That was the third job I lost for being white. The other two in corporate America. (They told me directly.)”

Why You Should Care: This is another perfect example of how the First Amendment actually works and doesn’t work. We covered this when Spotify and Joe Rogan got into a tussle last year around this time.

The First Amendment does:

Prohibit the government from suppressing unpopular speech or unpopular press. City, county, state or federal officials cannot exercise prior restraint on publication or speech in almost every situation.

It does NOT:

Cover everything ever said or printed. The law has deemed some forms of speech (fighting words, words that create a clear and present danger etc.) to be unprotected. The law has also deemed some content (child pornography, for example) to be irredeemable in any way and thus not be afforded protection under the law.

Prevent the speaker (or writer) from ramifications from free expression. Free speech does not equal consequence-free speech. If you express yourself in a way that legally defames a person, you can be sued for it and lose a boatload of money, if found to be guilty. If you engage in speech or publication that leads to imminent lawless action, you can be held accountable for the damage caused and charged with certain crimes.

Stop private businesses from suppressing or punishing speech.Private institutions are perfectly capable of hiring or firing people for a wide array of reasons. In the case of Scott Adams, the publications that once paid to run his comic are choosing now not to. That’s not censorship, a violation of the First Amendment or even “canceling” someone. Adams has the right to find other venues for his thoughts and artwork, of which he noted on Twitter he plans to avail himself. These publications can choose to run “Peanuts” in perpetuity instead of ever letting “Dilbert” back in the paper. Both of these actions are completely legal and in no way violate the First Amendment.

Force other people to listen to you or be happy about what you say.  Constitutionally speaking, Scott Adams can stand on a street corner and scream his theories about “Black People, Hate Group” into oncoming traffic. That doesn’t mean other people have to enjoy his blather. They have the right to shout him down, ignore him or scream about how “Dilbert” has really started to suck lately.

Promote “cancel culture.”  As we noted during the Joe Rogan debacle last year, the thing about the First Amendment is that it’s essentially content neutral. You want to tell people you hate dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you love dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you want to eat dogs, that’s fine. It’s gross and you’ll likely be home alone a lot on weekends, but it’s not against the law.  With the legal exceptions outlined above (and a few others), the type of speech doesn’t really play into whether that speech should be “free” or not.

It’s important to understand that free speech was always supposed to work this way, in which bad or dumb speech got knocked on its keester by good or smart speech. The whole concept of a “marketplace of ideas” is to give everyone a chance to speak so we could pick out the best ideas and use them as we saw fit. The ones that were dumb got discarded and the people who proclaimed those dumb ideas could either stick with their dumbness and be alone or come around to better ways of doing things and be part of those better ideas

CLASSROOM EXERCISE: Find recent examples of how public or private enterprises have dealt with unpopular speech or press. Follow the basic “5W’s and 1H” approach to outlining the situation (who was involved, what did they say, when/where did they say it, how did this shake out etc…). Then, discuss the ways in which this is similar to and different from the Scott Adams situation. This could be in regard to the speech taking part in a public institution, which affords speech more protections, or the topic at hand, or anything else. Try to come up with a sense of what kinds of patterns exist in how this speech is dealt with and if/how the person who created that speech eventually dealt with the situation (apology, bounced back years later, still living in an undisclosed location).

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