Comedy Club or Newsroom? Radio Reporter Jokes Spark Free Speech Firestorm

Comedy Club or Newsroom? Radio Reporter Jokes Spark Free Speech Firestorm

In a surprising turn of events, Jad Sleiman, a 34-year-old reporter, has been reinstated to his position with WHYY, a Philadelphia-based NPR station, following an arbitration decision. The arbitrator acknowledged that while some of Sleiman’s standup comedy clips posted on social media could be perceived as “inflammatory,” the organization had “rushed to judgment” in terminating him.

Sleiman, who had been a reporter on The Pulse, a nationally syndicated health and science program since 2018, was let go a year ago when executives discovered his social media account, where he shared snippets of his standup comedy under the handle Jad S. or @jadslay.

WHYY officials argued that Sleiman’s comedy violated the company’s code of conduct, social media guidelines, and values of social responsibility, citing nine videos with “egregious” content, including “sexual connotations, racial connotations, and misogynistic information.”

Expressing his feelings of vindication, Sleiman, who has worked as a reporter in the United States and abroad since 2013 after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, plans to return to work. He commented on the challenges he faced due to the negative image portrayed by WHYY, stating, “When a news organization says you’re a racist, bigot, whatever, people believe them.”

Sleiman defended his stand-up routines during the arbitration, highlighting that they stem from his experiences as an Arab American raised in a Muslim family and his time in military service and reporting in the Middle East. He emphasized his frustration with the perception that telling jokes outside of work should lead to termination, stating, “I want to be an example of, like, no, your employer doesn’t own you.”

Arbitrator Lawrence S. Coburn acknowledged the potential inflammatory nature of some clips but also found them to be “simply funny.” He noted that certain commentary was “insightful, principled, and serious.” As part of the decision, Sleiman is required to delete the nine cited videos and any “offensive post-discharge” posts criticizing the company.

Sleiman, who turned to comedy in 2021 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, views stand-up as a creative outlet that allows him to cope with his chronic illness. Despite the challenges, he remains determined to pursue both his roles as a reporter and a comedian. The arbitrator’s decision, issued on December 28, marks a significant milestone in Sleiman’s journey to reclaim his professional standing.

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Emily Johnson

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