Washington Post Sportswriter Sally Jenkins contacted me today to say that she thinks I mischaracterized her column from yesterday’s Washington Post in the blog I posted yesterday. I didn’t intend to do so, and regret any offense to Ms. Jenkins in expressing my disagreement with her position. You can read her column by clicking here.
Our exchange illustrates the sensitive and complicated nature of public discourse today, particularly around issues of race, gender and other personal characteristics. One person’s freedom of speech is another’s cause of action. Time.com has an article posted entitled, “Who Can Say What?” about the linguistic entrails of the Imus case.
Another Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson has a different point of view. In his column today “Why Imus Had to Go” Robinson takes issue with the “Who may say What?” arguments, along with criticizing other journalists for going on the Imus show even after the “shock jock” had created a long track record of racist, sexist, homophobic banter.
Robinson makes a critically important point in his column: in the four decades that Imus has been on the air, the world has changed dramatically in terms of how issues of race, gender and cultural diversity play out in the workplace and airwaves. In fact, the diverse workforces of CBS and MSNBC — women and African-Americans, in particular — spoke out forcefully to the executives at those companies, leading to the corporate decisions to pull the Imus show. These employees had the same freedom of speech as Don Imus, and they used it quite persuasively to make the case that when free speech is used irresponsibly by a paid professional, there is no need for the company to keep giving that person a platform.
Imus still has his freedom of speech, he just needs to find another outlet for his rants. Speech does have consequences — evoking disagreement, debate, even discipline when speech crosses the lines of decency or professionalism — and all of us who express ourselves in the public square accept the risk of consequences for the right of free speech.