Don Imus And The First Amendment

Several of comments to the posts I’ve written at Below The Beltway on the Don Imus story — here and here — have raised the issue of the First Amendment and Imus’s Freedom of Speech. It is, however, entirely wrong to characterize anything that’s going on in this case as a First Amendment issue.

First of all there’s the text of the First Amendment itself:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In other words, Freedom of Speech, as a Constitutional issue, only means that you have the right to say what you want without the government punishing you, and even then there are things you can’t say. Libel and slander laws are not barred by the First Amendment. Neither are laws against defamation. Saying that Don Imus had a First Amendment right to make the stupid comments that he did doesn’t really mean anything, because we’re not really talking about the government punishing him here.

Imus, however, isn’t just talking. He’s an employee using the property of someone else — specifcally MSNBC and CBS Radio — and they have the right to determine how it’s used and whether something that is broadcast is appropriate or not. So far, they’ve suspended him for two weeks, but that may not be the end of the matter; the powers-that-be at CBS Radio may decide that it is no longer in their business interest to be associated with Don Imus or his radio program. If that’s the case, he may never return to the airwaves again.

It may be a bad business decision, it may be unfortunate that they are bowing to pressure from people like Al Sharpton, but the one thing it wouldn’t be is a violation of Don Imus’s rights.