Radio reporter fired over comedy act reinstated after an arbitrator finds his jokes ‘funny’

Jan 5, 2024, 3:49 PM

A reporter who was fired for his standup comedy has been reinstated to his job at a Philadelphia-based public radio station through an arbitrator, who agreed that his jokes were, in some part, funny.

Jad Sleiman, 34, is to be fully reinstated to his position with WHYY, a Philadelphia-based NPR station, after an arbitrator determined that, while the bits posted to social media could be interpreted as “inflammatory,” the organization “rushed to judgment” in its decision to terminate him.

In a phone call Friday, Sleiman said he felt vindicated by the decision and plans to return to work.

“When a news organization says you’re a racist, bigot, whatever, people believe them,” he said. “So it was a lot of abuse from a lot of people who have never met me, who’ve never seen my stand-up just saw what WHYY said about me, which is not great.”

A message seeking comment emailed to WHYY was not immediately returned. Sleiman said he was considering further legal action for statements made by WHYY about his character.

Sleiman had been working as a reporter on The Pulse, a nationally syndicated health and science program, since 2018 when he was terminated a year ago after executives found his social media account — under Jad S. or @jadslay — that posted clips of his standup comedy.

Officials at WHYY argued that his standup comedy violated the company’s code of conduct, social media guidelines and values of social responsibility, finding his routine to be “inflammatory.” They submitted nine videos from social media as their evidence. They argued the clips were “‘egregious’ in content, and had ‘sexual connotations, racial connotations, and misogynistic information,’ ” according to the arbitration documents.

Sleiman, who has worked as a reporter in the United States and abroad since 2013 after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, argued in arbitration his stand-up routines 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 was frustrated that, when he was first fired, people thought it was an obvious conclusion for telling jokes while having a day job.

“Like, ‘What do you mean? You’re off hours, you’re having fun with, like, creative expression, of course you should get fired for that,’ ” he said. “But I hate that that’s become normal. And I want to be an example of like, no, your employer doesn’t own you.”

While arbitrator Lawrence S. Coburn conceded some or portions of the videos could be seen as inflammatory — “the very low standard in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that I am required to apply,” he wrote — he also found them to be sometimes “simply funny.”

In one, Coburn noted that some of the commentary was “insightful, principled and serious, but not very funny.”

“More important, I find that the message of the clip, if one is open to receiving it, cannot be interpreted to be inflammatory,” he continued.

For another, Coburn said “it is difficult to believe that a fair-minded person would find the clip inflammatory.”

“But the bar is very low, and WHYY’s 1.3 million person audience might have a few people who would find the clip inflammatory,” he added.

As part of the decision, Sleiman was to delete the nine videos cited. He was also asked to delete any “offensive post-discharge” posts where he disparaged the company for his firing. (Coburn found that, “under the circumstances, such ‘foolishness’ does not disqualify him from reinstatement.”)

Sleiman first turned to comedy in 2021, after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic illness that affects the central nervous system. One of his biggest fears, he said, was losing fine motor function and, with it, his ability to play the guitar and piano. But stand-up was a safe spot: There’s a stool if he needs to sit down, a mic stand if he can’t hold the microphone.

“These execs, they have no right to take that from me,” he said. “So I’m going to fight. I want both. I’m going to be a reporter and a comic, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The arbitrator’s decision was issued Dec. 28.

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Radio reporter fired over comedy act reinstated after an arbitrator finds his jokes ‘funny’