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ESPN struggles to explain how Jemele Hill violated its social media policy

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On Monday, SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill was suspended by ESPN for “a second violation of our social media guidelines” after she posted several tweets in response to recent comments from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said that players who do not stand for the national anthem will not be allowed to play.

How did Hill violate ESPN’s guidelines? That’s more difficult to explain, even for ESPN.

ESPN has two sets of potentially relevant guidelines for its employees, one on “Social Networking” and one on “Political and Social Issues.”

The guidelines on Social Networking, issued in 2011, relate specifically to conduct on platforms like Twitter and Facebook and appear to be badly outdated. For example, they prohibit ESPN employees from breaking news on Twitter, something that is done by ESPN reporters on a daily basis. The guidelines on Political and Social issues were updated in April 2017 to “to reflect the reality of the world today” — specifically, the fact that ESPN employees couldn’t avoid talking about politics. “There are people talking about politics in ways we have not seen before, and we’re not immune from that,” ESPN’s Craig Bengston said at the time.

Hill’s first apparent violation, according to ESPN’s statement, was a tweet in which she called Trump a “white supremacist.” At the time, ESPN said that Hill’s comments were unrelated to sports. (This is debatable in light of a president who injects himself into every issue, including sports.) Further, ESPN suggested that Hill’s comments were “inflammatory” and “personal.” (This is also debatable in light of Trump’s public commentary about race.) Both of these issues reference ESPN’s guidelines on Political and Social Issues.

But those guidelines also specifically state that it’s appropriate for ESPN talent to weigh in on political issues related to sports.

Outside of ‘hard’ news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or office holders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines…The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports…We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric…

Hill’s recent tweets seem to fall squarely within these guidelines. They involved a clear intersection between politics and sports — Jerry Jones’ pledge to bench players who did not stand for the national anthem. Hill’s tweets were not particularly inflammatory or personal. Rather, Hill argued that fans should not place the burden exclusively on players to stand up to Jones. Instead, Hill said that fans upset with Jones should take action themselves, perhaps by boycotting Cowboy’s sponsors. She later clarified she was not advocating for a boycott herself.

Publicly, ESPN’s public relations staff is pointing to one tweet in particular as the one that merited a suspension.

ESPN is not publicly explaining how this tweet violates its social media policy. “A spokesman for the company declined to say which specific guideline she had violated or whether she would be paid during the suspension,” the New York Times reported on Monday.

An ESPN source pointed ThinkProgress to the company’s Social Networking guidelines from 2011 to explain the company’s thinking. The guidelines have a number of rules for social media conduct, none of which Hill’s tweets obviously violated. But the ESPN source said Hill’s tweets violated this section of the guidelines:

Think before your tweet. Understand that at all times you are representing ESPN, and Twitter (as with other social sites) offers the equivalent of a live microphone. Simple rule: If you wouldn’t say it on the air or write it in a column, don’t post it on any social network.

In other words, ESPN is not relying on an infraction of a specific rule but rather a catchall provision that prohibits anything inappropriate. Which begs the question: What is inappropriate about Hill’s tweets?

The ESPN source told ThinkProgress that a key factor is that Hill’s tweet referenced a boycott of Cowboys’ sponsors, many of whom are also sponsors of ESPN. There is nothing specifically in the social media guidelines that prohibit criticism or commentary on sponsors. Such a prohibition would seem anathema to a news organization.

Nevertheless, Hill was suspended for two weeks. ThinkProgress reported in September that ESPN attempted to take Hill off the air after her first tweet but was thwarted when her colleagues rallied to support her.

Some ESPN employees have publicly rejected the company’s interpretation of its social media guidelines.

Michael Smith, Hill’s co-host on SportsCenter, did not appear on last night’s program.

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