NBC has suspended Keith Olbermann for donating money to Democratic political candidates without receiving permission from the network. According to several media reports, NBC requires journalists to seek prior approval from the network before making political donations. Other reports, however, suggest that the network has selectively enforced this requirement or that MSNBC commentators (like Olbermann) are actually exempt from the requirement.
Because NBC is a private company -- rather than a government employer -- it can place restrictions upon its employees' speech. Accordingly, absent some state or federal law on this issue, NBC's alleged contractual provision does not deprive Olbermann of any rights he has. The First Amendment does not apply to private, nongovernmental restraints on speech.
Nevertheless, NBC's decision to suspend Olberman is very troubling. Recently, Dissenting Justice criticized NPR's decision to fire Juan Williams after he made bigoted statements about Muslims. Although I found Williams's comments offensive, I believe that the decision to fire Williams resulted from a growing intolerance of controversial speech and ideas among the media.
The dismissals of Shirley Sherrod, Juan Williams, and many other individuals for isolated moments of controversy conflict with the American ideals of political debate and free speech. Although many liberals cheered NPR's decision to release Williams, I argued that NPR's position was not necessarily progressive. NBC's treatment of Olberman demonstrates that progressives should not tolerate kneejerk and intolerant behavior.
Clearly, room exists for employers to fire individuals when their private views impair their ability to execute their job-related responsibilities. In many instances, however, the decision to discharge or suspend individuals results from capitulation to controversy and momentary passions, rather than rational deliberation and judgment. NBC should reinstate Olbermann (I suspect he will soon return to the airwaves), and Americans should grow a lot more tolerant of ideas with which they disagree.