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NPR's Firing of Juan Williams

by Professor Will Huhn on July 27, 2011

in Freedom of Speech,Wilson Huhn

In October 2010 commentator Juan Williams was fired from NPR for remarks he made about Muslims.  His firing was unjustified.

David Folkenflik, in a story posted at NPR on October 21, 2010 NPR Ends Williams' Contract After Muslim Remarks, reported that NPR fired Williams because of the following comment he made on Bill O'Reilly's program at Fox:

"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Williams also warned O'Reilly against blaming all Muslims for "extremists," saying Christians shouldn't be blamed for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

These remarks do not defame Muslims or blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks.  In the same interview Williams stated flatly that America is not at war with Islam.  When his remarks are taken literally, Williams is simply confessing to being nervous and worried with other people on a plane dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.

There are many situations where people may be nervous around others of a different race or religion.  Everybody has moments like that, particularly in large crowds of persons of a different heritage.  These feelings are common.

Furthermore, it is undeniable that America is at war with small groups of Muslim fundamentalists, and that these groups have carried out attacks against Americans on airplanes and on our own soil.  Had Williams stated that his nervousness at seeing or riding on a plane with a Muslim was not simply understandable but justified – that we ought to be nervous with a Muslim on a plane – that we should fear all persons whose dress identifies themselves as Muslims – that would be a different matter.  In light of the remainder of his remarks it is not reasonable to construe Williams' remarks to mean this.

Williams is the author of several major civil rights works, including Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, and Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.  He also has written documentaries including Politics – The New Black Power, Marian Anderson, and A. Philip Randolph – For Jobs and Freedom.  He has proven himself to be a careful, thoughtful scholar.  I disagree with many of the political positions he expresses on television and radio, but I admire his contributions to American life.

Williams has now published Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate.  Diane Rehm of NPR hosted Williams so that he could talk about his book and his mission to encourage Americans to listen to each other and be willing to learn from each other.

Williams' message is absolutely critical for the future of our country.  We need rational solutions to the problems that beset us.  Those solutions will not emerge from shouting matches or exercises in ridicule – or from an unwillingness to acknowledge our own fears, even when those fears may be viewed as politically incorrect.

{ 1 comment }

Da King July 28, 2011 at 9:39 am

I agree that NPR's firing of Williams was completely unjustified. I remember the first time I got on an airplane after 9/11, and there were two young men dressed in Muslim garb sitting a few rows behind me. I'd be lying if I said the thought of terrorism didn't cross my mind for a moment. This doesn't mean I'm prejudiced against Muslims. I'm not at all. I just have a memory and I'm aware of what is going on in the world. What Williams said was not racist, it was human and honest.

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