In the wake of a brutal earnings report and a sea of controversy, Netflix recently delivered a blunt message to employees.
If you don’t like the content Netflix produces, you are free to leave.
The message was delivered to employees in the streaming giant’s culture guidelines, which the Wall Street Journal said were updated on Thursday for the first time since 2017 to include language on artistic expression in its programming.
“We let viewers decide what’s appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices,” Netflix said in an updated memo. “Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”
It’s been a tough year for Netflix. The company’s stock is down 61 percent over the last 12 months after plummeting in April when the streamer revealed in its first quarter earnings report that it had lost 200,000 subscribers, the first time in more than a decade it had posted a net loss in subscriptions.
Apart from its bottom line, Netflix found itself in a stew of controversy in October when a group of employees staged a walkout over Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer, which some viewers described as transphobic.
The controversy prompted one producer to boycott Netflix, whose CEO seemed caught off guard by the backlash.
“We are trying to support creative freedom and artistic expression among the artists that work at Netflix,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said. “Sometimes, and we do make sure our employees understand this, because of that — because we’re trying to entertain the world, and the world is made up of folks with a lot of different sensibilities and beliefs and senses of humor and all those things — sometimes, there will be things on Netflix that you dislike.”
A Win for Free Expression
How Netflix arrived here stems from a pair of cultural trends. The first is the mainstreaming of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), an idea that says corporations must be socially accountable to its customers and stakeholders—by getting involved.
For most of US history, corporations stayed out of politics. That has changed.
Customers now expect corporations to take sides, which is why it’s common to see companies take positions on everything from climate change and vaccines to gun control and regulating speech. The rise of CSR is why you see Burger King taking on “cow farts & burps.” It’s not just about generating profits by serving customers anymore. Increasingly, corporations see a responsibility to take stands in the realm of social activism.
At least to some extent, companies are motivated by the fear of remaining silent on important causes, suggested Vanessa Burbano, an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.
“Will people maybe infer from your silence something that isn’t your company’s stance?” Burbano told Forbes. “If every other company in your industry has come out and publicly made a statement on an issue, you don’t want to be the one to stay silent.”
The second trend is the rise of fragility and censorship, which in recent years has steadily chipped away at free expression and speech. Around 2016, social media companies like Twitter, which had formerly described itself as a bastion of free speech, began to aggressively police speech on its platforms. By 2020, corporations like Coca-Cola, Hersey, Verizon, and others were boycotting Facebook as part of a Stop Hate For Profit campaign designed to spur more aggressive “content moderation.”
Supporters of censorship, such as New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, say they only want to protect people from hate speech.
“[Hate] spreads like a virus and that’s why I’m calling on the CEOs of all the social media platforms to examine their policies and to be able to look me in the eye and tell me that everything is being done that they can do to make sure this information is not spread,” Hochul said on Sunday following the mass shooting in Buffalo.
But what classifies as hateful speech is very much in the eye of the beholder, something Netflix saw with Chappelle’s comedy show.
While most audiences loved The Closer—it scored a 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—others saw it as transphobic hate speech, something Sarandos disagrees with.
Americans could endlessly debate whether Chappelle’s act was funny or hateful or offensive, as we could many other programs on Netflix. As a Christian, I could easily find offense at Netflix’s “Gay Jesus” parody. But the true mark of a tolerant and enlightened society—versus a dogmatic one—is the ability to speak freely, even if it is considered hateful or blasphemous to some.
“Free speech is my right to say what you don't want to hear,” George Orwell once observed.
And that’s the beauty of it. If you don’t want to see Chappelle’s act or Gay Jesus, you don’t need to watch it. This has always been the proper response to efforts to ban “dangerous,” “hateful,” or “blasphemous” speech.
"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god,” Thomas Jefferson once observed. “It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg."
Free expression is a healthy and good thing for everyone, but it’s especially important for artists and creators. There’s simply no way to produce good art if you’re constantly in fear of accidentally stabbing someone’s sacred cow or trying to please everyone.
Netflix, to its credit, appears to have realized this. Score that as an important win for free expression. Let’s hope other companies are paying attention.