Juan Williams Calls Firing By NPR 'Chilling Assault on Free Speech'

Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters join chorus urging NPR to rehire Williams.

October 21, 2010, 1:24 PM

Oct. 21, 2010— -- News analyst Juan Williams ripped into NPR today for firing him over comments that he gets "nervous" at seeing people wearing Muslim-style dress on airplanes, calling his dismissal a "chilling assault on free speech."

Williams' firing has triggered a backlash against NPR with people ranging from comedian Whoopi Goldberg to conservatives like Sarah Palin and William Kristol arguing that dismissing Williams for that comment was wrong.

On an appearance of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," on Monday Williams, 56, said, "I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country, but when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

NPR fired Williams two days later, calling his remarks "inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR."

Williams fought back today with a long statement on the Fox News website, which promptly hired him as a full-time contributor. In the statement, Williams accused NPR of a long-standing campaign to marginalize him since he began appearing regularly on Fox which liberals claim has right-wing bias.

Williams, who is black and has written extensively on the civil rights movement, accused his former NPR bosses of taking his comments out of context, pushing a liberal political agenda, and not giving him a chance to defend himself in person before he was dismissed.

"I asked why [NPR Senior Vice President Ellen Weiss] would fire me without speaking to me face to face and she said there was nothing I could say to change her mind, the decision had been confirmed above her, and there was no point to meeting in person," Williams wrote in a statement released by Fox News.

"To say the least this is a chilling assault on free speech. The critical importance of honest journalism and a free flowing, respectful national conversation needs to be had in our country. But it is being buried as collateral damage in a war whose battles include political correctness and ideological orthodoxy."

Williams also said that he cited his feelings about Muslims on planes to make a point about tolerance.

"I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith," he wrote.

"I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to violation of anyone's constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without fear having your throat slashed," Williams wrote. "Bill [O'Reilly] and I argued after I said he has to take care in the way he talks about the 9/11 attacks so as not to provoke bigotry."

NPR Says Juan Williams Comment Was Last Straw

NPR CEO Vivian Schiller told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Williams' comments were the last straw for NPR.

"There have been several instances over the last couple of years where we have felt Juan has stepped over the line," Schiller said.

"He famously said last year something about Michelle Obama and Stokely Carmichael. This isn't a case of one strike and you're out," she told the paper.

Williams said on Fox News last year the first lady "has this Stokely-Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going."

Williams rubbed his NPR bosses the wrong way in 2007 when he appeared on Fox News to gripe that the White House offered him an exclusive interview with President Bush, but NPR made him turn it down. NPR wanted to choose its own reporter for the interview rather than let the White House set conditions.

"I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me," Williams said of NPR.

Williams was the latest journalist to be fired for comments that were seen as biased. UPI's Helen Thomas and CNN's Rick Sanchez were dismissed after making comments deemed offensive to Jews.

Before Williams was fired, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said such commentary from a journalist about other racial, ethnic or religious minority groups would not be tolerated.

"NPR should address the fact that one of its news analysts seems to believe that all airline passengers who are perceived to be Muslim can legitimately be viewed as security threats," CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad told the Associated Press.

But Williams' remarks reflect a view widely held among Americans, raising accusations that his dismissal is the result of overly sensitive political correctness. According to two recent polls, Williams' remarks reflect the opinions of many Americans, leading some observers to suggest that Williams was fired for saying what everyone else is thinking.

Whoopi Goldberg Urges NPR to Rehire Juan Williams

In an August poll conducted by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, the majority of Americans said they believed Islam was more encouraging of violence than other religions. A Gallup Poll conducted in January found that 43 percent admit to feeling at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims.

William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard wrote, "Do the powers-that-be at NPR think Juan Williams is a bigot? Do they think a traveler who has a reaction (fair or unfair) like the one Juan describes, in our age of terror in the name of Islam, is a bigot?... I suspect the powers-that-be at NPR pretty much think what Juan thinks. But the standards of political correctness must be maintained."

Palin retweeted remarks from conservative columnist Michelle Malkin who suggested there is a double standard and "lib hate speech always gets a pass."

Whoopi Goldberg, a co-host of ABC's "The View," said on the show today that NPR was wrong to fire Williams.

Goldberg walked off the set of the "The View" last week when O'Reilly said Muslims were to be blamed for the 9/11 attacks. She said the incidents were different because Williams was stating an opinion while O'Reilly was stating what he claimed was a fact.

"View" co-host Barbara Walters also said Williams should not have been fired.

"If you are someone who is giving your opinion, then you're allowed to give your opinion," the news veteran said. "You may or may not agree. Therefore, I think they were very wrong."

Two Republican politicians, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called on the federal government to pull funding for NPR for firing Williams.