Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 17, 2007

Imus controversy from a free-speech perspective

“Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.” ~ Journalist Neal Boortz

I’ve been incredibly torn by the Don Imus controversy.

Surely you’ve heard about it. After radio-show host Imus hurled a throwaway sexist, racist insult at members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, controversy exploded. After protests, MSNBC and CBS suspended Imus for two weeks, then fired him.

Cable news coverage of his now-infamous remark and the ensuing uproar rivaled coverage of the entire Anna Nicole Smith saga – her death, the fight over where to bury her, the paternity battle, the upcoming custody battle and on and on.

At least the Imus controversy raises important issues.

I’m not torn because I’m an Imus fan – I’m not. Until this controversy erupted, I’d never heard of the man. I didn’t listen to his radio show. I didn’t watch the simulcast on MSNBC.

Until this uproar, I could have shared an elevator or taxi cab with Imus and not known who he was.

I’m not torn because of uncertainty about the nature of Imus’ remarks. They were offensive, nasty, rude, and, all the more because they were made in passing, seemingly thoughtlessly, to me revealed him to be a racist, sexist man.

I’m torn because I’m an advocate of free speech.

Imus’ apologies in the first days following the uproar seemed sincere to me, at first. Then I learned that Imus made similar apologies and promises to improve his behavior after other offensive remarks over the years and began to question my ability to read people.

If you can fake sincerity, the old saying goes, you’ve got it made.

But Imus’ level of sincerity isn’t a critical issue in this controversy. Those issues are racism, sexism and free speech.

“I don’t know why people think that somehow the First Amendment applies to network television. It doesn’t. It’s like the way free speech doesn’t apply at work. You can’t just walk into your boss’ office and say ‘you’re a fuckface and I’m gonna go back to work now.’ No, you’re not.” ~ Comedian Jon Stewart

As a newspaper columnist, and former newspaper reporter and editor, I’m about as big a champion of free speech as you’re likely to find. That position is enhanced by my liberal-with-a-strong-libertarian-streak tendencies.

But I also recognize that free speech is not unlimited. Here’s what I wrote two years ago, during the Day of Silence hubbub at Gilroy High School:

“Most of us, teachers included, must edit ourselves as part of our employment. In many high-tech fields, workers are privy to intellectual property and trade secrets that they are obligated not to divulge. Public school teachers, quite properly, cannot proselytize in the classroom. Anyone with an ounce of common sense refrains from bad-mouthing the boss, and managers with any ethics and any skill don’t bad-mouth the people who report to them.”

So, when it comes to the Imus controversy, while I’m concerned about a chilling effect it might have on free speech, ultimately I’m OK with Imus’ two-week suspension and eventual firing.

Don Imus has a right to say what he wants, even sexist and racist comments. But he also has to live with the consequences of his speech. While he probably did not violate broadcast standards with his racist, sexist remark, Imus did offend many people.

Those people have free speech rights, too. They can denounce Imus and his remarks, they can point to his long history of offensive speech, they can tell advertisers on his radio and television programs about their opinions, and they can tell Imus’ employers what they think.

And that’s just what they did.

In the end, probably due more to reading the economic tea leaves than anything else, Imus’ employers decided to fire him. And that’s their right.

As a result of the entire Imus episode, we’ve had important discussions about racism, sexism, and free speech.

It’s just too bad that all of that had to come at the expense of innocent bystanders, the members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

“The way to combat noxious ideas is with other ideas. The way to combat falsehoods is with truth.” ~ Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas


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