Brief background for those who haven’t been following this particular bit of theater: The radio commentator Don Imus, while watching a college women’s basketball game, called one of the teams “nappy-headed hos”. This was going too far, even for a shock jock like Imus. Advertisers started pulling their ads, and eventually Imus’s employer cancelled his show entirely, despite his going around and apologizing to everyone in sight.
Now, I’m totally in favor of Don Imus getting fired. In fact, I’m in favor of him not having been hired in the first place — who needs talk shows like that anyway?
But I was bemused, and disturbed, to hear Imus on NPR quoted saying that while he regretted his comments, he’s not a racist, and if he’d really been guilty of racist hate speech, he ought to be thrown in jail. (I wish I had the exact quote here, but I was just listening to the radio in the kitchen and not taking notes. I tried to find a transcript on the Internet, but couldn’t, even at npr.org.)
It’s obvious what Imus was trying to convey. “I’m not one of the bad guys! I’m a good guy! I’m not really a racist! It was all for show! Racists are bad people who spew hateful speech and deserve jail; I’m not one of them.”
Still, how can someone whose entire career has been utterly dependent on freedom of speech — by which I mean, freedom from government-enforced penalties for speech — turn around and stab the principle in the back like that? Sure, people lose their jobs for speech all the time, and that’s fine. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as bad, harmful speech: there certainly is such a thing, and there are times when it should cost you your job. (Universities are a special case, and the tenure system is in part a formal protection for controversial speech by academics.) But jail? Or other state-mandated penalties? Those should be completely off the table, because otherwise people wouldn’t feel free to disagree with the government.
Thanks for nothing, Don Imus. If you want to make it up to the rest of us, send a big check to the ACLU. They’ll still defend your right to free speech, even if you won’t.