I am not going to defend Don Imus' comments about the Rutgers basketball team. I think the term "nappy-headed" is a clear reference to their race. It is derogatory and insulting. And racist.
But I still think he should keep his job.
The first amendment refers to government restrictions on free speech. But the concept of free speech is broader than that. It is an idea, not just a law.
The first amendment doesn't apply to someone like Don Imus because the government isn't prohibiting him from saying what he said. But the concept of free speech does apply to him.
Free speech doesn't exist in a vacuum. It must be protected not just by the government, but by society. We must be open to different and objectionable ideas. We must even allow them to be broadcast over the airwaves.
There is no more proverbial street corner where you can broadcast your ideas. In order to effectively deliver your ideas to a significant audience, you must broadcast them.
It's hard to see what society gains from allowing Imus to call people racist names. But if we push for people to fire him, will we prevent others from having an open dialogue about race that can eventually lead to positive change?
Remember, society is quickest to shut down the voice of the rebel or the outsider. In other words, the liberal. The Southern establishment had no interest in hearing from Martin Luther King, Jr. Many would have considered Malcolm X's diatribes racists. Should he not have been allowed on television or radio?
I am not saying that Don Imus is Malcolm X. I'm saying that you need to allow a Don Imus so that you can get to a Malcolm X.
I think Rush Limbaugh is significantly more hateful than Don Imus and his past comments have been demonstrably more racist. Limbaugh told an African-American caller to get the "bone out of your nose." It's hard to imagine a more racist comment.
But I also believe that Rush Limbaugh should stay on the air. We have the freedom to not listen to people we find objectionable. But if we try to shut them down, it is going to build resentment and an aura of intimidation that isn't good for the free flow of ideas. It isn't even good for our ideas. If you believe in your principles, you should let them meet other opinions in the open battlefield of ideas. You have to have faith that they will win.
The minute I listened to one segment of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage or Dr. Laura, I knew they weren't for me. Dr. Laura oozes hatred for gay people. It drips out of every word. But it would be a dangerous world if we took her right away to say the things she does. That's why I was against the boycott of her show. When you take her off the air, you are not just hurting her ideas, you are hurting all ideas.
Public scorn is totally fair game. Equal and opposite speech is fair game. But no speech for one side, even if it is a hateful side, does all sides damage.
We even allow people to openly argue for senseless wars that cause the deaths of thousands of people. And we are too genteel to handle a little racism or homophobia?
One of the cast members of Imus' show is Sid Rosenberg (he chipped in his own racist comments during the Rutgers conversation). In the past, he has called Palestinians, "stinking animals." That's hideous. As a Muslim-American by birth, I am personally offended by that comment. But I would still let him continue on-air.
My identity does not wither in the face of an attack by a degenerate like Sid Rosenberg. I am not going to convince others who are predisposed to believing him to change their minds by shutting him up. I am far more likely to get them to change by talking to them and opening up their minds.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue in particular raises a lot of tempers and gets people to say a lot of awful things, but it's a critically important conversation. I would rather have some people go over the line in discussing it than have people not discuss all of the underlying issues for fear of offense.
And believe me, if you censor it, it won't be the Israeli point of view that gets shut down in this country. Let people speak openly, so we can at least have the conversation.
Are there limits? Yes. There are hardly any black and white issues in the world. You have to find the right balance. In the case of free speech, that balance should be tilted all the way over to one side because there is hardly anything more important to an open society than open dialogue. But in this, as with everything else, there is a limit.
Of course everyone will disagree on what the limit is and we will eventually come to a rough consensus as we do in democracies. My take is that we shouldn't ban anyone from the airwaves unless they are overwhelmingly and habitually over the line, a hundred miles over the line. Call it the Ann Coulter Test.
So, if Sid Rosenberg and Rush Limbaugh don't go over the line, who does? I can name only one person that currently goes on-air that crosses the hundred mile line. Ann Coulter.
As if her past comments weren't enough, she just took a swipe at genocide - because it isn't quick enough. She followed that up by advocating the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq to terrorize the population. But this is tip of the hundred mile iceberg with Coulter.
I want to make some quick distinctions here though. Fox News Channel is different than Don Imus. The difference isn't that Fox is more racist, it's that they are more deceptive. People listening to the Imus show know exactly what they're getting. Fox, on the other hand, lies to its audience and its peers and pretends to be something it's not.
I would defend Fox's right to broadcast their opinions to my death. But I love that the Democratic candidates are not going on Fox to hold their presidential debates. Just because they should be allowed to broadcast, doesn't mean that you have to watch them or go on their station. Until they drop their completely disingenuous claims about being an objective news channel, no one should take them seriously.
The Democrats would never have their debate on Rush Limbaugh's show and they should never have it on Fox News Channel. On the other hand, if the Republicans want to hold their debate on Fox, that makes sense to me. There's nothing wrong with Fox's existence. There is only something wrong with the rest of the news establishment pretending they are a legitimate news station.
I have also spoken out against Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), who has made some terrible anti-Muslim comments. I think he should at least be censured by Congress. Goode is a public representative. He doesn't just speak for himself. His job is to speak for all of us as our representative. If he is openly hostile to some of his constituents because of their identity, then he is not fulfilling the requirements of his job.
If he dropped out of Congress and became a talk show host, then I would have no problem with him. He's dead wrong either way, but you can argue against him as a talk show host. But you can't get him to represent you in government if he hates you. You think any Muslim is going to get a fair shake in Congressman Goode's office when he doesn't even think they should be in the country?
Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I am sure I have said many things that many people found gravely offensive as a talk show host. Obviously, I have a vested interest in opening up the dialogue on-air. But I don't think this disqualifies me from the conversation. Instead, it gives me a unique perspective.
I know from first hand experience that what one person finds valued speech is what another finds morally reprehensible. We have to let them hear all of it, and make their own judgment. Forcing people off the air and having no one but the most plain and unobjectionable speakers hold the conversation doesn't do anybody any good.
Follow Cenk Uygur on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheYoungTurks