California Labor and Employment Defense Blog

Was Juan Williams' Termination By NPR Illegal Under California Law?

NPR announced yesterday that it had terminated "longtime news analyst" Juan Williams because of the views he expressed during a discussion of terrorism and Islam on The O'Reilly Factor.  The specific comment for which he was terminated was apparently the following:

"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 the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

NPR has stated that William's termination was justified because he violated the NPR policy that "News analysts may not take personal public positions on controversial issues." 

Given the peripatetic nature of the news business it is unclear what state law might govern Williams' employment.  (New York or DC are likely candidates).  But if NPR ever intends to fire one of its California employees for taking "positions on controversial issues," it should first consider the implications of California Labor Code section 1102:

No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.

The scope of the "political" speech and conduct which is protected by Section 1102 is not limited to support or opposition to candidates or parties.  Rather, it has been broadly defined to include the espousal of opinions concerning such matters as publicly supporting gay rights or opposing union closed shop rules.  

Juan Williams' positions (or alleged positions) thus seem to fall squarely within the definition of protected "political" speech -- indeed, NPR's position is that he was fired precisely because his positions were deemed too "political" and "controversial."  California employers should therefore think twice before emulating NPR's conduct in this episode.

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