NPR's recent decision to fire Juan Williams has caused a media frenzy. Although I find Williams' comments offensive and bigoted, I must admit that I am disturbed by the American rush to punish people harshly for making controversial statements.
Why A Progressive Could Feel Uncomfortable About NPR's Decision
People from Shirley Sherrod to Rick Sanchez have recently lost employment over controversies caused by their comments on issues of public concern. In some instances, the discharges have resulted from kneejerk decisions made with incomplete or misleading evidence (Sherrod).
But even when the firings resulted from deliberative processes, as in the case of Isaiah Washington from television's Grey's Anatomy, the discharges still bother me because they isolate a single moment in an individual's history and make it the source of severe sanctions: loss of employment and public shame. Flexibility, proportionality, and context do not exist in these situations. Instead, punishment is the driving force. This does not strike me as a progressive stance.
Academic Freedom for Everyone?
Perhaps I am too impacted by my own status as an academic (with tenure), but I have developed a strong tolerance for controversial and disagreeable speech. In fact, I first became a blogger because I wanted to express my opinion on views with which I disagreed.
Within academia, people do not generally lose their jobs when they make controversial statements; instead, these controversial comments tend to generate debate, reflection and thoughtful criticism. These academic elements are conspicuously absent from American political discourse. I believe that we all suffer from this lack of deliberative reflection and civil exchange of ideas.
Rather than engaging in civil commentary regarding controversy, the public often demands that individuals who make unpopular statements pay for these comments with their jobs. I suspect, however, that most individuals would not like their own employers to apply the same standard. If Americans routinely lost their jobs every time they offended others, the unemployment rate would soar to heights previously unknown. The fact that many of the individuals targeted by punitive firings are public figures does not justify the disparate approaches.
Although rash discharges in response to speech trouble me, companies absolutely have the right to fire employees -- as long as the discharges do not violate the law or a contractual provision. Accordingly, NPR has the right to let Williams go.
Furthermore, I also understand that in some situations an employee's speech could harm the employer or its clientele, thus warranting a discharge. It is unclear to me, however, that this risk has existed in the litany of recent cases in which public figures have lost their jobs as a result of controversial speech.
Why Conservatives Are Being Hypocrites Regarding NPR's Decision
Finally, I am deeply offended by the hypocritical conservative response to NPR' termination of Williams. As Glenn Greenwald so excellently observes, conservatives were completely silent or joyful when people like "Octavia Nasr, Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, Eason Jordan, Peter Arnett, Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield, Bill Maher, Ward Churchill, Chas Freeman, Van Jones and so many others" lost their jobs due to controversial speech. Yet, the conservative media and politicians are in a state of utter despair over NPR's termination of Williams. This response is blatantly hypocritical.
The conservative response is also hypocritical because conservatives are usually callous to the conditions of workers. They hate labor unions, do not want workers to organize to create rights in the workplace, and often blame labor for many of the nation's economic problems. Yet, when the highly compensated Williams -- who had a written contract to protect him -- faced discharge, conservatives mobilized to defend him. If the wealthy Williams deserves employment-related freedoms, so do poor and working class workers who, in the absence of unionization, usually do not even have contracts to protect them.
Of course, as Greenwald also observes, conservative do not really care much about Williams' employment. Instead, they are angered that NPR punished him for expressing anti-Muslim bigotry. Thus, NPR is the new object of condemnation in a year of conservative politics laced with anti-Muslim bigotry (as in the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy).
Conservative lawmakers have even seized upon the moment to renew their effort to kill funding of public broadcasting. Conservative disdain for public broadcast funding and of funding for the arts has a very long history, and it has often been rooted in bigotry (recall the efforts to stigmatize gay artists like Marlon Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe who received public money in the 1990s).
NPR made a business decision to fire Williams. I do not contest the organization's right to make this call. I do wonder, however, whether the country can learn to become more comfortable with controversial speech and to construct a more civil public discourse. Rash firings of individuals -- followed by a political campaign of hypocrisy by opponents -- can only make matters worse.