There are few things I miss about law school. One thing I do miss, though, was the opportunity to take a situation and analyze it from all angles. It’s an intellectual exercise where, instead of trying to reach your client’s desired result, you’re trying to determine whether or not there’s one “right” answer.
By now you’ve surely heard about the controversy surrounding NPR’s firing of Juan Williams, following some remarks he made about Muslims while a guest on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Discussing this with a colleague yesterday, it struck me that this situation is almost like a law school exam question. There are so many different angles to this story, and I don’t know if there is one right answer.
Obviously the discussion starts with Williams’ First Amendment right to express an opinion, even (or especially!) an unpopular one. Was that right violated? No, because there was no government action – despite its moniker, National Public Radio receives no direct funds from the federal government; funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting make up only approximately 2% of its funding. The question then becomes, was this right? And like any good lawyer, I’d answer, “it depends.”
On one hand, NPR has an interest in ensuring its reporters and journalists maintain an appearance of neutrality on hot-button issues. If, for instance, TPT political reporter Mary Lahammer spoke openly about her political affiliation, it would affect the way people viewed her reporting. If she is a conservative, one might be inclined to think that she’s going easy on Governor Pawlenty; if she’s politically progressive, others would criticize her for not being tough enough on Mark Dayton. Either way, knowing a journalist’s personal opinion on issues they are called to analyze can create an appearance of less-than-evenhanded reporting. And as all good lawyers know, even the appearance of impropriety should be avoided.
This, by the way, is the reason NPR has given for Williams’ firing. NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller stated, “News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues; doing so undermines their credibility as analysts…” I completely understand NPR’s position, and think it is a reasonable condition of employment.
However, Williams’ recent appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” was hardly his first. He’s been a regular guest on several Fox News Channel shows, including “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace” as well as “The O’Reilly Factor,” where he has been clearly presenting similar opinions for years. In 2009, NPR requested that he stop identifying himself as an NPR host when appearing on Fox News Channel shows. They cannot now claim to be surprised by his opinions. If Williams sues for wrongful termination, I imagine he’d be able to assert that they waived this condition of employment, and can’t arbitrarily choose to start enforcing it again.
In the end I am sure the dispute will come down to what the terms were within his employment contract, and I’ll leave it to Francis Rojas to analyze that! But I find it an interesting exercise, with people’s opinions on what’s right colored by their political views.
And just in case you were worried, Williams has landed on his feet: Fox News Channel has hired him to a $2 million, three-year contract, that includes a regular guest host position on “The O’Reilly Factor.”