Thursday, October 21, 2010

The 1st Amendment Threshold


I know where I stand with the Juan Williams firing from NPR yesterday.  He described in an interview how he feels some fear when he is in an airport and sees people in Muslim dress. 

The higher ups at NPR were very upset with Williams for expressing this on the air.  They said that, because he is a journalist, he is not in the business of giving opinions.  NPR pays him as a journalist, so he crossed the line during his interview.

My feeling is that he was not being discriminating.  He was not saying people should be allowed to do this or that.  He was describing a feeling that he had; an experience he had in a certain situation given some very recent events that we are still healing from.  Would people fault me for saying that, while walking down a street at night, I felt fear when some skinheads were walking towards me?  The skinheads may be sound editors or folk musicians on break going to get a drink.  But because of prior associations I might have had with skinheads on dark streets, I felt fear, and I think there’s nothing wrong with describing this.  I’m not saying skinheads should not be allowed to walk down the street at night.

The issue of whether he should or should not have been saying these things when he is paid by NPR to be a reporter I think is also a bit rigid.  You can’t watch a television broadcast of the news without an anchor giving a look or a remark at the end of some stories.  That’s editorializing, and it happens every night. We’re all humans. Watch the news tonight and see.

Lastly, NPR, like all media outlets, is in the business of news and opinion.  I think it becomes dangerous when someone is fired for expressing their experience about something.  The 1st Amendment, among other things, protects people's freedom of speech from being censored by the government, but not from being censored by private entities, such as companies.  You can’t yell fire in a crowed theater, anywhere.  But, for example, when I worked at Disney, if I had been talking about certain topics on the job, I could have been justly fired.  They have the right to do that.

But since NPR is in the business of disseminating information, like newspapers and television, (and by the way, NPR does get government grants), they have to be especially careful about not squelching information that is not blatantly discriminating or combustive.

I heard that Mr. Williams just got a new contract today for a couple million dollars.  Maybe this will help sooth his feeling of being unjustly fired.