Last week's firing of NPR correspondent Juan Williams was a hot topic in media circles, with a wide range of opinions on Williams' initial comment about Muslims and whether or not his right to free speech was violated. Personally, while I found Williams' statement to be both hateful and puzzlingly stereotypical, I didn't think that comment in and of itself was worthy of Williams losing his job. NPR nonetheless fired Williams quicker than you can say "a three year/$2 million Fox News contract extension," and a much richer Williams is now some sort of odd hero to the very conservatives who typically scream bloody murder every time he defends Obama on Fox News.
Only in America.
Still, this situation did raise an interesting point that relates to all of us with a day job and a mortgage. Namely, how can us regular people negotiate the thin line between expressing our personal opinions and respecting the rules of our employers?
"I want to cut his nuts out," Jackson said in a whisper on a Fox News Channel interview, adding that Obama had been "talking down to black people."
Most employers have published standards of acceptable conduct. There are all sorts of legal disclaimers in the employment contracts that most of us sign (and seldom read) when agreeing to accept a job offer. These standards cover the obvious things (drug use, felony convictions), and in today's cyber-driven society, increasingly provide guidelines for social media usage. People have been fired for badmouthing their bosses on Facebook, fishing for jobs on LinkedIn, and sending obscene Tweets. And yes, in case you're wondering, employees have been fired for comments posted on blogs.
In short, anything you say (or type) can be used against you by your employers -- even if giving opinions (as in Juan Williams' case) is actually your day job. If those opinions violate the terms of your main gig, you are out of luck. Of course you could always file suit if you feel you were unfairly terminated, but thus far Williams has made no mention of such an impending action. His new $2 million gig is a good reason. But for the average person, it probably won't be worth the money or hassle.
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Given Williams' history of making oddball comments on Fox News, it's fair to say that this incident wasn't the sole reason for NPR firing him, merely the final nail in the coffin. Another employee with an otherwise spotless track record likely would have gotten away with a suspension. Yet, while Williams emerged from his situation much richer (although probably not wiser), the same rules probably don't apply to the rest of us.
The Juan Williams incident teaches us this: Be careful what you say. Or type. Today there is no privacy, so "freedom of speech" as it has been defined by many in the workplace, is a thing of the past.
Jay Anderson is a freelance writer from Washington, DC, whose work has been featured in the Washington Post and on NPR. When he's not busy talking smack here, he runs the award-winning blog AverageBro.com. Follow him via Twitter @AverageBro.