October
21st 2010
A suggestion: People who pose as Constitutional literalists should know what’s in it

Posted under: American history, bad language, wankers

Apparently, the switchboards and servers at NPR have crashed because of the vitriol directed at them by the ignorant who are exercised about the firing of Juan Williams. Although the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, it does not guarantee employment after the free exercise thereof.  I’m so tired of right-wingers who don’t get the distinction.  As they were so fond of reminding us during the invasion of Iraq, “freedom isn’t free!”

Dumba$$es.  Here is the full text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Please note that there is no guarantee of employment in this amendment, at NPR or anywhere else. 

This reminds me of a letter to the editor of the Dayton Daily News from the previous decade, in which a reader complained about how liberals thought it was A-OK to burn the U.S. flag but were all upset over a local incident in which someone had stolen and torched a neighbor’s rainbow (gay rights) flag.  This reader thought that he had caught the liberals in a ridiculous contradiction in their beliefs!  Because apparently, he didn’t understand the difference between burning one’s lawfully purchased flag (of whatever description) and the criminal act of stealing someone else’s flag (of whatever description) and burning it.

And, FWIW, I don’t care about Juan Williams.  I’m sure he’ll do just fine at Faux News.  I care about the U.S. Constitution and stamping out widespread ignorance of what the Bill of Rights does and does not guarantee.

43 Comments »

43 Responses to “A suggestion: People who pose as Constitutional literalists should know what’s in it”

  1. squadratomagico on 21 Oct 2010 at 11:16 am #

    Wait, you mean he wasn’t arrested and sentenced to some form of imprisonment for those remarks? OUTRAGEOUS! Saying something like that is against the law, right?

  2. Perpetua on 21 Oct 2010 at 11:20 am #

    Totally. You know practically every time someone starts talking about their First Amendment rights they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, morally and ethically. It’s sad that it works that way, but there’s a pattern. People who have no other defense for their words or behavior invoke their ‘rights’. Blame Muslims for 9/11, use the ‘n’ word on air 50,000x, picket at a gay soldier’s funeral, etc, all in the name of the Constitution. And in cases like Williams’ (and the ‘n’ word lady – sorry I don’t remember and don’t have time to look it up, am typing one-handed as it is) conservatives love to act like the First Amendment gives you the right to say anything you want without people reacting negatively. Yes, you have the “right” to say some hateful thing, but I have the right to boycott you, drive you out of public life, etc.

  3. fannie on 21 Oct 2010 at 11:34 am #

    It’s also my favorite when people interpret the First Amendment to mean “I get to say whatever I want to say and if someone criticizes me for it, they’re violating my free speech!”

  4. cofax on 21 Oct 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Please note that there is no guarantee of employment in this amendment, at NPR or anywhere else

    While I am in full support of NPR dumping Juan Williams for giving the Fox line on Fox and then pandering to the right on NPR, your interpretation of First Amendment jurisprudence is a little shallow.

    In fact, First Amendment case law includes a lot of precedent about employment. A government can sometimes fire an employee for speech acts, but it’s not an absolute right. (It depends on the speech, and the context, and what the person’s job is.)

    In any event, the key question here is not whether First Amendment law protects an employee, but whether NPR is considered “government”. While NPR does get some funding from the federal government, it is in fact a private non-profit organization, and as such it is entitled to regulate the speech of its employees (so long as it does so consistent with other federal legislation).

    As the Catholic Church can refuse to hire an activist for same sex marriage, so can NPR refuse to continue to employ someone who violates their journalistic ethics by slandering an entire religious group.

  5. truffula on 21 Oct 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    The part that bothers me the most is the unwillingness to bear the consequences of their actions. It’s simply unprincipled. Folks who commit act of civil disobedience, for example, go into it with the understanding that arrest will result and are okay with that. It’s a price they are willing to pay.

  6. Historiann on 21 Oct 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    cofax–that’s my point. NPR is not the BBC. If you read the first link above, it says: “I myself have received over fifty furious calls from self-described conservatives who believe that Mr. Williams’ comments were protected under the Constitution and that we are evil liberal censors.” Of course they’re covered by the First Amendment–but the First Amendment does not guarantee employment by a private non-profit.

    What exactly about my interpretation was shallow? That I didn’t point out that NPR wasn’t the BBC in my original post? I’m unclear as to what you think I missed.

  7. quixote on 21 Oct 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    (Erm,… they sure don’t seem very exorcised. Exercised, yes. :D )

  8. Tenured Radical on 21 Oct 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    Do conservatives understand that, because of them, NPR is no longer funded by federal dollars? Dumbasses.

  9. Emma on 21 Oct 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    What exactly about my interpretation was shallow?

    You didn’t use enough words.

    Kidding!!

    To cover cofax’s point you might have said:

    “Please note that there is no guarantee of employment in this amendment at NPR or any other private employer.”

    However, it’s also true that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you employment with a government employer, either. So maybe to be ever more accurate, one might have said,

    “Please note that the First Amendment does not protect you from being fired by a private employer for what you say and may not protect you from being terminated by a government employer under certain conditions.”

    Then, of course, one might have to list those conditions:

    “If one engages in constitutionally protected speech on matters of public interest.”

    Then, of course, one might have to list the exceptions to those conditions:

    “If one is a political appointee who is terminated for one’s partisan affiliations, like U.S. Attorneys.”

    “If one is a policymaking official.”

    See! Not enough words!!

  10. Feminist Avatar on 21 Oct 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    The BBC is technically independent of the UK government. Its role as a non-partisan distributor of information and ‘quality programming’ with the aim of promoting democratic and accountable government is one of the justifications for its existance (its ability to be independent is however disputed). (This is distinct from the ‘BBC world service’ which is the PR arm of the UK.) The existance of the BBC is meant to show our commitment to independent journalism in a country with some of the strictest speech law in the world (although we do have free speech under human rights legislation, it is limited by lots of other legislation).

    The result is the BBC are quite happy to penalise their employees, and even fire them, for saying offensive stuff, especially on air.

  11. Historiann on 21 Oct 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    Thanks, Emma. Hey folks–this is a blog, not a Law Review or peer-reviewed journal article! And I’m just a humble historian who’s deeply concerned about the fate of the Republic. (Message: I care.)

    FA brings up a good point–thanks for filling me in on the particulars of the BBC (which, since I only get BBC world over here, I assumed was all the same entity.)

    I listened to Talk of the Nation today, in which the host interviewed the NPR ombudsman on the Williams case. She said that Williams had long been “the most controversial” employee at NPR–so maybe they were looking for him to grab enough rope? Whatever. I don’t care about him so much as I care about popular misrepresentations of the First Amendment.

    I agree with those of you above (Perpetua, fannie, and truffula) who noted the babyishness of people like Dr. Laura and their defenders who think public criticism or even ridicule is somehow a violation of First Amendment rights. Sorry, Charlies! You’re free to say dumb and offensive things, but others are free to call you a jacka$$.

  12. Historiann on 21 Oct 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    An NPR employee–who’s been getting e-mails about angry callers calling random NPR extentions to b!tch at someone, anyone–just forwarded me this from the NPR blog.

    I think it’s safe to say that neither Williams nor NPR has handled themselves with dignity in this affair. And they should all clearly see their psychiatrists to talk it over!

  13. koshem bos on 21 Oct 2010 at 2:33 pm #

    Juan Williams had women harassment problems in his past as well. He uttered a clear ethnic hating line and him staying on NPR flies in the face of the soul of the organization. First Amendment has nothing to do with it.

    Personally, I cannot stand this idiot. And he is downright stupid.

  14. truffula on 21 Oct 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    I’m sure JW will turn a profit on this. Fired by NPR for following O’Reilly’s lead is surely like finding a golden ticket in a Wonka Bar.

  15. gxm17 on 21 Oct 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    The news of Juan Williams’ firing came the same week I was pulled over, again, on an airport road. Mind you, I’m extremely plane phobic and avoid airports as much as possible, but driving my mother to work I have to cut through National Airport. And, it just so happens that I am regularly mistaken for being of Middle Eastern descent. Each time I’ve been pulled over, I was not given a ticket. I’m guessing that once the airport cops see my ID and registration, they presume I am Hispanic and not a threat, to airports at least. I dunno, maybe they really did think I was speeding and were just being nice to not ticket me. All I know is that I’m grateful I’m too afraid of airplanes to ever set foot in one. I don’t even want to think what the gate security would put me through.

    As for Juan Williams, the man’s an ass and it’s about time his hateful attitude got called out.

  16. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Oct 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    NPR made a big mistake in firlng Juan Williams during fundraising week, and they will pay for it!

    By the way, Historiann, as an expert on the first amendment, perhaps you could elaborate on the difference between “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion” and “separation of church and state”. Liberal dumba$$es do not seem to understand the difference (though Christine O’Donnell does). (A hint for liberal dumba$$es– one phrase occurs in the Constitution, one does not. Guess which is which.)

  17. Dickens Reader on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    I do not believe the people who are angry because Williams was fired are the same people who would donate to NPR. NPR has always been considered liberal by the right. Besides, unlike donating to churches, the right would not be able to dictate to NPR on how to spend the money.

  18. nicolec on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Thank you Historiann! I expect my high school students to struggle with this difference but not adults. And, since this is your blog and all, I don’t expect you to write for me, but do appreciate that you share your thoughts with us as I find them interesting and thought provoking. Oh and major kudos for attracting a Christine O’Donnell fan…

  19. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Dickens Reader, if you go to the NPR website, you will see that most of the comments there on the firing of Juan Williams are from outraged NPR listeners–not from devotees of the Tea Party. Believe it or not, many liberals are outraged by this highhanded action and the NPR CEO’s condescending suggestion that his views should stay between himself and his psychiatrist. Read the comments and count how many of them are from outraged folks who say they will either be boycotting NPR for what they did or cutting off contributions. And I don’t blame them! The NPR ombudsman has also weighed in and said that the way this was handled was a mistake.

  20. KC on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    JackDanielsBlack wrote:

    By the way, Historiann, as an expert on the first amendment, perhaps you could elaborate on the difference between “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion” and “separation of church and state”. Liberal dumba$$es do not seem to understand the difference (though Christine O’Donnell does). (A hint for liberal dumba$$es– one phrase occurs in the Constitution, one does not. Guess which is which.)

    In the radio debate, Coons directly quoted the first amendment, and O’Donnell responded with her incredulous remark, “The First Amendment does?”

    But anyway, to your point, the 14th amendment extends the provisions of the First Amendment to the state and local level. And as for the phrase itself not appearing in the Constitution, it’s certainly a reasonable interpretation of the establishment clause, and the phrase has been used by the Supreme Court for over a century. If you have a problem with it, I guess you need to argue against McCollum v. Board of Education from 1947, which argued for the separation of church and state in schools based on the fact that the latter were supported by tax funds. Thus, the use of taxpayer-funded schools to push religious doctrine is a violation of the establishment clause, and preventing such violations requires that there be a “separation” between religion and the “public” sphere.

  21. KC on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    Also, for O’Donnell, let’s remember that in that debate she needed the questioner to tell her what the 14th amendment actually said. She’s another in a long line of mainly right-wing politicians who proclaim themselves to be passionate defenders of a Constitution about which they have little knowledge and/or understanding.

  22. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    KC, I am familiar with the later interpretations of this, of which there have been many in my lifetime. When I was a kid in Mississippi, I was driven to my Catholic school in a Mississippi school bus, and all my textbooks (except for religion of course) were provided by the State of Mississippi. This situation was not unique to Mississippi. Even today, after my school was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Government helped rebuild it (except for the Chapel, of course,) and George Bush gave a speech from the school. So even today this “wall” is not so high–witness the tax exemption of religious property and contributions.

    In any case, what was at issue in the Connecticut debate was not how the First Amendment has been interpreted through the years, but what it actually says. So your point is at best irrelevant, and at worst a red herring–just like Mr Coons point.

  23. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Oct 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    Upon review of the debate, it would appear that Mr. Coons also needs to bone up on the “five freedoms” mentioned in the First Amendment and taught to schoolchildren (at least when I was going to school, usually by the coach, who pulled double-duty for civics and government classes.)

  24. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Oct 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    And Tenured Radical, I am not sure who is the dumbass here, but I don’t think it’s conservatives. NPR gets about 40% of its funding from member stations, and member stations get about 16% of their funding from Federal/State/Local governments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gets its funding from — you guessed it– the Federal Government. So NPR gets plenty of money from the Federal Government, albeit indirectly. For a breakdown, see the NPR website, http://www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/publicradiofinances.html

  25. JackDanielsBlack on 21 Oct 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    Oh, dear, I see I said “Connecticut” where I should have said “Delaware” in one of my posts above. To we Southerners, all those New England Yankee States look alike! Anyway, I guess I’ll have to keep repeating to myself “Connecticut–that’s the one where the Wrestling Queen is gonna win!”

  26. KC on 21 Oct 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    In any case, what was at issue in the Connecticut debate was not how the First Amendment has been interpreted through the years, but what it actually says. So your point is at best irrelevant, and at worst a red herring–just like Mr Coons point

    But the 14th amendment extends the protections in the first amendment to the state and local level. So O’Donnell’s complaints about Congress butting into the affairs of local government are a red herring. It is no leap to interpret the establishment clause as prohibiting the public endorsement or funding of religious doctrine.

    As for tax exemptions for religious institutions, I am certainly in agreement that they should be eliminated entirely.

    Anyway, what I’m reacting to is your arrogant assumption that liberal “dumbasses” don’t know what the Constitution says, or the history of jurisprudence surrounding the Constitution. In my personal opinion, I think the establishment clause is a bit of an anachronism–and the postmodernist in me could have a field day with defining a term as amorphous as “religion.” But that said, the idea that “separation of church and state” is some liberal invention out of whole cloth is entirely absurd. It’s an entirely reasonable interpretation of the establishment clause.

  27. Emma on 21 Oct 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    “Later” interpretations? You’re invited to come up with some earlier cases with different interpretations, Mr. Black.

  28. Digger on 21 Oct 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    I heard on NPR this evening that Williams was offered (or had taken, I don’t recall) a 3-year contract with Fox News worth $2 mil.

    Free speech rights aside, they also mentioned that NPR has clauses in their contracts placing limits on the conduct and speech of their employees. As an example, they are not permitting their employees from attending the upcoming Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rallies in Washington.

    Ok, I did hear it on NPR itself… but even accounting for the spin factor, if Williams violated the terms of his contract, then he’s out. And apparently not making out too badly as a result!

  29. Digger on 21 Oct 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    to attend*

  30. cgeye on 22 Oct 2010 at 1:49 am #

    Gawd, any doofus can say he’ll stop supporting NPR; it’s not as if they tattoo membership numbers on arms, for Pete’s sake. Do you think the Tea Party organizers would let their flock admit they even listen to the Enemy?

    It’s a well-known hack to call in liberal shows and claim to be a Democrat, but deride (host’s opinion regarding Topic X). Good lord, don’t they call that concern trolling?

    NPR won’t lose money on this, because they’ll respond by hiring an even more rightwing host who’ll say he’s for moderation, but won’t evah risk skin actually being liberal. Williams was gunning for a full FOX post because they pay better — it’s like Colmes — somebody has to play the stooge, don’t they?

  31. cgeye on 22 Oct 2010 at 1:54 am #

    … and if anyone thinks that a two-million-dollar contract between a media giant and a correspondent’s power agent (despite how I loathe him, Williams working for NPR, FOX and PBS ain’t too shabby) can be negotiated within a week, let alone three days, well, they must believe that Christine O’Donnell wasn’t a campaign fund moocher that finally got enough media coaching to present as functional and informed. The fix was in; perhaps O’Reilly sees a way to get the mike back from Glenn Beck, with a Punch and Judy act.

  32. JackDanielsBlack on 22 Oct 2010 at 3:50 am #

    Well, it looks like Juan is going to come out of this OK. But I doubt that NPR (and more particularly its affiliate stations) will. It just doesn’t look all that good when NPR fires its only black news analyst for speaking his mind, and then tells him he should have talked to his psychiatrist instead of to Bill O’Reilly. By the way, is Mara Liasson next? NPR makes themselves look bad while simultaneously making Fox look good — no mean feat!

    KC, again you are putting words into my mouth and then criticizing me for saying them. I did not say that separation of Church and State was “some liberal invention out of whole cloth”; indeed, Thomas Jefferson interpreted the first amendment in this way. Of course, Jefferson also had some interesting ideas on States Rights that you probably wouldn’t adopt with the same enthusiasm — google “Kentucky Resolutions” for an example.

  33. Digger on 22 Oct 2010 at 5:39 am #

    cgeye: good point about the negotiating time needed. I hadn’t thought of that. Re: all the media coverage: they do say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Previously, people might have wondered where Williams had gone; now all know that he was a) working at Fox (which I was unaware of) and b) he’s moving there and c) made a tidy paycheck doing it.

  34. KC on 22 Oct 2010 at 6:50 am #

    KC, again you are putting words into my mouth and then criticizing me for saying them. I did not say that separation of Church and State was “some liberal invention out of whole cloth”; indeed, Thomas Jefferson interpreted the first amendment in this way. Of course, Jefferson also had some interesting ideas on States Rights that you probably wouldn’t adopt with the same enthusiasm — google “Kentucky Resolutions” for an example.

    Yes, exactly the reason why I think it is stupid to attempt to limit interpretations of the Constitution to the kind of strict literalism that O’Donnell favors. The founders were not unusually wise in many respects.

  35. JackDanielsBlack on 22 Oct 2010 at 9:52 am #

    KC, I think we’ve about beat this one to death, so this will be my last post on it. Let me close by pointing out that if we don’t at least adhere to the plain language that is in the Constitution we end up with ridiculous opinions like Justice Douglas’ invocation of “penumbras” and “emanations” of various Bill of Rights guarantees as creating “a zone of privacy” in Griswold v Connecticut. Whether you think this case was decided rightly or wrongly, one’s confidence is not helped by watching Douglas’ frantic armwaving in his opinion. By invoking penumbras and emanations, you can use the Constitution to justify just about anything!

  36. cgeye on 22 Oct 2010 at 11:52 am #

    Isn’t the fault NPR only having one black news analyst? And one who wasn’t satisfied having that bully pulpit, and decided to flirt with conservatism, at that?

    The best thing about Williams leaving is that it opens up that slot (tokenism, for good or ill….) to someone who could stand for something more than placeholding. For a corporation based in a majority-black city, it can do better — and should.

  37. Historiann on 22 Oct 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Excellent point, cgeye. It IS NPR’s fault. (They have black news show hosts like Michele Norris and Michel Martin, but as you note, in a majority black city, they could do a heck of a lot better.)

  38. Fratguy's friend on 22 Oct 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Is there anything in the First Ammendment that guarantees that I will get a job if I make a racist comment? I don’t have a job and might be willing to insult large groups of innocent people to get a good job.

  39. Historiann on 22 Oct 2010 at 10:26 pm #

    Heh, Fratguy’s friend. The irony is that in order to cash in on racist comments, you need to spend a good 20 or 30 years building up a reputation as a sensible, serious, semi-intellectual. (For example: if not a gig as a news analyst at NPR, at least 6 appearances on Charlie Rose, plus a few in-depth articles published in The Atlantic.) Then and only then is it worthwhile for Rupert Murdoch to buy you out with a $2M contract. It won’t pay to be a random, obscure racist.

    So, you’d better get going on that 20-30 year investment in earning goodwill and a reputation for a moderate level of intellectual seriousness. Some of us have a good 15-year head start on you!

  40. Dr. Koshary on 23 Oct 2010 at 4:19 am #

    The sad thing to me — maybe I should say ‘sad and surprising’ — is that Juan Williams was, at an earlier point in time, a thinker and analyst worthy of respect. I’m not a historian, so I’ve never had professional opportunity/need to read his work with a fine-toothed comb, but I remember encountering Eyes on the Prize‘s documentary adaptation, and being impressed with its thoroughness. (Full admission of my wet-behind-the-ears youth: I was in high school at the time.)

    Was my initial impression mistaken, in the eyes of his fellow US historians? Or did he raise hackles among his colleagues before he began this shifty “I can be an NPR correspondent AND a Fox News media-whore!” business?

  41. JackDanielsBlack on 23 Oct 2010 at 6:03 am #

    Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts are NPR commentators who have made politically suspect comments on other shows over the years (for example, Totenberg opined that it would be nice if Jesse Helms or his grandkids got AIDS, while Roberts seems to think that Glen Beck is a terrorist.) Wonder if they’ll be summarily fired for violating NPR’s policies? Oh, wait, I guess not, because they are not black men flirting with conservatism. NPR–the only liberal news network with no black news analysts! The hypocrisy of liberals never fails to amaze me.

  42. Historiann on 23 Oct 2010 at 8:01 am #

    Dr. Koshary–I’m not a 20th C or Civil Rights historian, but as far as I know, Williams’s book and PBS series were considered very respectable popular histories. I’ll be interested to hear what people closer to the field think.

  43. Fratguy's friend on 23 Oct 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    Okay, so much for my get-rich-quick-by-being-a-racist strategy. I will start my intellectual timeclock now … or actually after I drink this pitcher of beer. Thanks for the career advice!

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