National Public Radio terminated its contract with commentator Juan Williams Thursday after Williams said on The O’Reilly Factor that he gets nervous when he sees people in Muslim garb on airplanes. Three weeks ago, CNN ousted anchor Rick Sanchez for controversial comments he made about Jon Stewart and Jews. Can news organizations fire reporters and commentators for anything they write or say?
Pretty much. The default labor contract in the United States is “at-will” employment, which means private employers can fire you at anytime for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all. (Slate employees, for example, are “at-will.”) There are exceptions for discrimination based on race or gender, say, or retaliation for whistle-blowing. But you don’t have a Constitutional right to keep your job no matter what you say.
All that can change, depending on your contract. Most union contracts stipulate that an employee can be fired only with just cause. The contract between the Washington Post and the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, for example, states that “No employee shall be discharged except for good and sufficient cause.” While there’s no strict definition of “sufficient cause,” most unions apply a set of seven tests, including: Was the rule the employee broke reasonable? Was there proof of guilt? Does the punishment fit the crime? Did the employee receive notice that his action was a violation? (This last one doesn’t apply in situations where he should have known better, like violence in the workplace.) For small infractions, like showing up late to work, employers are supposed to issue a warning first. For gross misconduct, like theft, the employer can usually fire someone for a first offense.
If Williams were protected by a “just cause” provision, would his offense meet the criteria for dismissal? Probably. NPR said that his remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices,” presumably because they were discriminatory. If NPR has a handbook or set of guidelines prohibiting discriminatory statements—which it probably does—they’re in the clear. (For example, the New York Times states in its employee handbook: “In deciding whether to make a radio, television or Internet appearance, a staff member should consider its probable tone and content to make sure they are consistent with Times standards.”) Unless Williams’ contract explicitly states that he cannot be fired for expressing his opinion—which it probably doesn’t—it’s up to NPR to decide what commentary meets their “editorial standards and practices.” (NPR declined to comment for this story.)
There’s a twist: NPR receives about 2 percent of its funding from the federal government. As a general rule, government employees enjoy more First Amendment protection than private employees, so long as the speech in question takes place outside the context of their job. A White House staffer could praise Osama Bin Laden in a public square, for example, but they couldn’t do it in an official press release without risking punishment. But NPR doesn’t receive enough federal cash—nor does it sufficiently fill a government function—to qualify as a public entity.
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Explainer thanks Jeff Hirsch of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Paul Secunda of Marquette University, and attorney Richard T. Seymour.