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Roger L. Simon

Should Juan Williams Sue NPR?

October 21st, 2010 - 8:48 am

Juan Williams just got fired by National Public Radio for saying out loud something that 95% of Americans feel — and I would bet my house almost every executive at NPR feels — that he gets nervous when flying in an airplane near people in heavy Muslim garb.

Besides the obvious — that the NPR execs are despicable, self-serving, almost comical hypocrites — the real question is whether Williams has a lawsuit against NPR for restriction of his speech and, if so, whether he would pursue it.

Though it is the NPR execs who have actually befouled their company here, what would militate against such a suit would be the standard clause  Williams probably signed giving NPR license to end his contract for blemishing the network’s reputation in some vague manner.

Nevertheless, I would like to see Williams go ahead with legal action. It would be like putting political correctness on trial.  This would be a great service to our nation, which has lived under the totalitarian PC yoke for too long.  We cannot rely on South Park alone to oppose it. Indeed, the Williams firing would be perfect grist for an episode of South Park with an NPR exec forced to ride next to a Richard Reid-type on a plane, the exec still desperately trying to be politically correct while Reid loaded up his shoe bomb with myriad forms of explosives. (“Do you have athlete’s foot, sir?  Would you like some powder?”)

But seriously, folks, NPR, as we all know, makes a show — emphasis on the show — of being politically even-handed, yet they can’t stand a self-avowed liberal speaking honestly about his feelings.  It’s worth remembering too the executives of this public corporation have been under attack for their wildly inflated salaries. These are the people who are telling us what is correct speech — in a democracy.  Forget South Park.  It’s subject matter for Jonathan Swift — and Aristophanes.

UPDATE:  Evidently, I am only dreaming here.  Law professor and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh writes:

No; NPR is a nongovernmental entity, and is thus not bound by the First Amendment.  That it gets some federal subsidies doesn’t change that.  See Rendell-Baker v. Kohn (1982), http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=10176312845394846270.

In fact, it might well have its own First Amendment rights to hire or fire those employees who speak on its own programs based on their speech, even off-program speech.  See Nelson v. McClatchy Newspapers (Washington Supreme Court 1997), http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2967807308826584631.  That’s not completely clear, to be sure; but in any case it’s not that important, since I know of no statute or common-law rule that would try to limit NPR’s decisions on this score.  And, as I mentioned, the First Amendment certainly doesn’t.

Back to Square One… or South Park.

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