Defending Don Imus

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 2:25 PM

April 10, 2007 — -- 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 the women's 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.

Cenk Uygur is the main host of "Young Turks" on Air America Radio.