Juan Williams’ book assesses free speech, media in U.S.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Americans don’t need more political correctness, says author and news commentator Juan Williams in his new book, Muzzled. Instead we need “to end the ongoing assault against honest debate in America.”

Williams, who for a decade doubled as a commentator on both National Public Radio and the Fox News Channel, lost his NPR job as senior news analyst last year after fallout from comments he made to Fox host Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Discussing Muslims and Sept. 11, Williams said passengers wearing Muslim garb on airplanes made him nervous. In the same segment, however, he cautioned against violating the constitutional rights of peaceful Muslims in response to the actions of Muslim extremists.

Still, NPR executives Ellen Weiss and Vivian Schiller fired Williams, who was well known for his books Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years and Thurgood Marshall – American Revolutionary. The NPR incident led to the book contract for Muzzled.

In it, Williams writes that “when it served their purposes, NPR officials were all too happy to use my connection to Fox.” But there’s much more to the book than the NPR imbroglio.

Williams devotes an entire chapter, “The Limits of Free Speech,” to the First Amendment. He discusses free-speech theory, current controversies and more. “Allowing people to speak their minds, express their feelings, and let the chips fall where they may in the marketplace of ideas is the essence of America,” he writes.

He addresses campaign finance and free speech, outlining the sharply the contrasting opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (2010). Although Williams says campaign-finance restrictions are a First Amendment issue, he also sees some arguments on both sides as contrived:  “The conversation about campaign finance as a free-speech issue feels like a petty feud, a wheel-spinning exercise at which both sides are at their giddiest when it is their turn to demonize their opponent.”

The book ranges over many other topics, including funeral protests, obscenity and hate speech. And in a chapter called “The Provocateurs,” Williams addresses the state of the modern broadcast medium, where, he contends, extreme voices tend to drown out more moderate ones.

In interesting assessments of current and former talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Al Franken (on the now-defunct Air America radio network), Williams finds them and others more polarizing than enlightening.

“I believe most Americans would passionately embrace reasoned, honest debate on the issues, but they don’t know how to stop the drivel and personal attacks,” he writes.

Williams also speaks on the nation’s commitment to the separation of church and state, as reflected in the First Amendment’s religious-liberty clauses, in a chapter titled “The Abortion Wars.”

“Religion is not the law in America,” he writes. “The Constitution is the law.”

Muzzled, which mentions the Newseum’s “four-story-high stone tablet display” of the First Amendment, provides an educated assessment of the modern media and free speech in modern America.

It’s worth a read.

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