The Manchester United scout fired for racist posts on Facebook shows the complications of free speech

The scout fired by Manchester United for posting a bunch of racist shit to his personal Facebook page stands by the racist shit he posted to his personal Facebook page.

Freedom of speech is complicated.

On one side there are the obviously positive uses. Think subjugated citizens fighting for justice from within corrupt systems across the world, begging to be heard and risking their lives to get their messages of truth out beyond their community borders. We applaud these people. We retweet and ‘like’ their missives of perseverance through struggle. We condemn the repressive governments and ruling classes that would dare try to silence them, that restrict the basic liberty of freedom of expression.

Then, every once in a while, freedom of speech turns on us, revealing the other, less-beautiful side of the coin. Someone in a high-profile or noteworthy position will say something disgusting that we don’t agree with, and we’re left conflicted. Part of us wants to see this person punished — personally, professionally, or criminally — but the rest of you knows that “freedom isn’t free.” The right to voice one’s opinions can’t be only applied to the things we’d prefer to hear.

In January, a scout for Manchester United was fired for posting a series of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant status updates to his personal Facebook page. In one post, Danish-born Torben Aakjær referred to a local mosque as a “conspiracy-potential prayer-shop.” In a series of other updates, Aakjær called for Denmark to close its border to would-be immigrants, particularly those from eastern Europe, saying “extra personnel on every crossover and exit so all that eastern Europe dirt and shit can be kept out.” In the photo below, he flippantly called for a team of pigs to sent “against Islamists,” with a caption that roughly translates to “They should know.” Aakjær regularly showed support for Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), a far-right, populist political organization.

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After being alerted to the Facebook posts by The Guardian, Manchester United took up its own internal investigation that concluded with the release of this statement:

“The club received the evidence from the Guardian, launched an immediate investigation into the matter and has terminated our association with Mr Aakjær. Manchester United is an inclusive organisation and will not tolerate this sort of behaviour.”

Aakjær initially denied certain portions of the comments that cost his his job. He admitted to to the larger beliefs presented in the Facebook posts, but suggested that specific comments, like referring to eastern Europeans as “dirt and shit” was the result of his account being hacked by someone with an anti-Manchester United agenda.

Again, from the Guardian:

“I do believe we should close the borders, as many Danish people do, but I would never use this aggressive language. I would never write ‘dirt and shit’. I’ve never written anything racist and it doesn’t sound like me. I am not racist at all and I am shocked. When I hear this it sends a different message of the person I am.”

His denial is obviously bullshit. The idea that someone who wanted to take United down would launch a cyber attack on a scout that the average fan has never heard of is stupid. Further, his Facebook page was littered with overtly racists comments like this:

“If [immigrants] are taking a Danish job then out, but primarily the barriers should be closed for criminal jerks and beggars and likewise from Romania, Bulgaria etc.

In an interview published yesterday by Danish news outlet PLBold, Aakjær doubled-down on his views. He repeated that he believed in the bigoted statements he shared on social media and blamed his termination from Manchester United on the journalists who reported them to his employers.

“Had I known that the journalist who slaughtered me would do so, I probably wouldn’t have written any comments on Facebook except about football. Not that I have changed my mind about what I wrote, I still believe the things I wrote. But had I known that it was enough to lose my job, of course I wouldn’t have expressed myself in that way.

“Unfortunately, I did not have enough overview or insight to figure out that what I wrote on my personal Facebook account of course could show me and therefore the club in bad light. With the media attention which of course is around one of the largest football clubs and brands, they had to react as they did – quickly and effectively, unfortunately.”

In other words, “Yeah, I said a ton of foul shit, and I meant every word of it. But I’m not the problem here. The problem is snitch reporters who can’t mind their own business.”

On the surface, it’s a laughable idea. But if freedom of speech — in its truest and most honest form — is a core belief of yours, you have to take the idea somewhat seriously, as gross and obviously unpleasant and problematic as it sounds or feels.

Freedom of speech is an inevitably dicey subject. There’s no debate worth having that what Aakjær said wasn’t reprehensible. A thought process like his serves no functional good in our society. Though it’s an easy stance, it’s difficult to do anything but applaud Manchester United for deciding that views like his were not permissible within the club.

But where is the line between a public relations move and a restriction of freedom of speech? Free speech doesn’t mean a freedom or absolution from criticism and punishment, nor should it. But in general, we have yet to figure out the “correct” point at which someone’s personal thoughts can have public consequences. Are we OK with Aakjær being fired because of what he said, or because of the medium he chose to say it? If his hate-speech was brought to light as the result of a secretly recorded conversation, would we feel the same way? Should someone be at risk for losing their job simply for being hateful, or for doing so within everyone’s field of vision or earshot?

These questions will never have a universal set of answers. Opinions on the subject of the boundaries of free speech vary widely, as they should. There’s no guilt in celebrating karma or justice coming back to bite a terrible person in the ass, but if we agree to think critically, there has to be some fear of hypocrisy when it comes to how we legislate free speech.

That said, go ahead and exercise your freedom to find joy in Torben Aakjær standing on an unemployment line for being an unrepentant racist.


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