The reluctance of President Obama to consider revocation of Bill Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in light of the recent revelations of Cosby’s sexual predatory conduct toward women is unfortunate and unnecessary. The president’s disinclination is based upon the view he expressed at a recent news conference that there is “no precedent” to withdraw the award. His characteristically lawyer-like contention was embellished later by his press secretary, Josh Earnest, who pointed out that “no mechanism” exists to take away the award, which was given to the then-beloved entertainer by President George W. Bush in 2002, for “cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
A number of organizations have confronted similar issues dealing with honorific awards to individuals who, as later disclosure showed, had engaged in conduct that undermined the values inherent in the honors and tarnished the organizations that bestowed them. Several military awards have been withdrawn; citations for authors of books and other publications taken away; beauty pageant winners have been forced to give up their tiaras, and sports recipients have been stripped of their titles. Obama, an avid sports fan, should be familiar with some of them, like the Little League Baseball team from Chicago, his hometown, which had its 2014 U.S. championship taken away last winter when it was belatedly discovered that the team had used ineligible players. Similarly, University of Southern California football player Reggie Bush in 2010 relinquished the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s outstanding college football player, five years after he received it, in light of its imminent revocation due to revelations of his receipt of improper financial benefits from boosters.
Although there was “no mechanism” in place for revocation in most of these incidents, the conduct of the recipients was deemed so egregious as to justify taking back the awards they should never have received in the first place.
The Obama administration could follow these precedents in undertaking scrutiny of the accusations against Cosby and, if the allegations are shown to be true (which seems likely), withdraw the award. The other organizations did so without a pre-existing procedure, in order to maintain the credibility of the award and the groups giving them.
Concerns about the permissibility of retroactively changing rules or procedures, which also have been raised, ought not prevent revoking the award. These legal issues sometimes arise in criminal law, or in some civil matters — such as the retroactive imposition of discipline by the National Football League last year on some players, including the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson — usually when there has been some deprivation of established rights or financial benefits. In Cosby’s case, he had no right to the award and would lose no economic benefits if it were taken away from him. Therefore, the administration should undertake an inquiry into the Cosby calumny and consider revoking the award if appropriate.
If further scrutiny bears out what Cosby is accused of having done, as seems evident from his own admissions, some type of remediation is appropriate. Even if inquiry into the Cosby contretemps does not lead to rescission of the award, it may prompt him, like the USC football player, to voluntarily tender it back.
That would be the first appropriate action he has taken since the tawdry tales of his behavior first surfaced years ago.
Marshall H. Tanick, of Minneapolis, is an attorney.