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Kelly says radio host shouldn't be fired

As 10 Boston city councilors rushed to condemn the racially charged on-air remark of a WEEI radio talk show host, South Boston Councilor James Kelly yesterday accused his colleagues of "censorship in the pursuit of political correctness."

In a letter to WEEI, Kelly said, "I strongly disagree with their position" that host John Dennis should resign or be fired after comparing a gorilla that had escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo to a Metco student. Metco is a voluntary desegregation program that buses Boston students to schools in the suburbs.

"For the First Amendment to have meaning, unpopular speech, including controversial comments, must be tolerated," Kelly wrote in the letter.

Dennis, cohost of the morning "Dennis & Callahan Show," came under intense criticism shortly after making the remark during a segment discussing the news on Monday. Dennis later apologized on the air, and on Thursday WEEI suspended him for two days without pay.

Several councilors immediately criticized Dennis's comment and yesterday 10 of them signed a letter to WEEI saying that the host should be fired for making such a "blatantly racist" remark. "Should he refuse to resign, WEEI has the right and responsibility to terminate his employment immediately."

Of the council's 13 members, only Kelly and two others declined to sign. Paul J. Scapicchio, who represents the North End, and Jerry McDermott, who represents Allston-Brighton, said they didn't sign, because they didn't want to interfere with personnel matters at a private company.

"I didn't think that it was my position to tell WEEI what to do with its employees," McDermott said. "I think that what John Dennis said was terribly inappropriate, but I'm pretty confident that the adults running WEEI will handle it in an employer-employee fashion. I'm trying to stay out of it."

Kelly, who has been a controversial council figure in the past for his stands on race, said in his letter that none of his colleagues felt the need to criticize when some councilors had made what he considered "anti-Catholic/anti-white" statements during City Council meetings. "Yet they did not hesitate to demand that John Dennis be terminated immediately," he wrote. "Such hypocrisy!"

Kelly, who could not be reached yesterday evening, did not specify what remarks he was referring to.

Many of Kelly's colleagues who signed the letter calling for Dennis's termination refrained yesterday from criticizing Kelly, but the letter clearly injected a new note of tension at a time when issues of race on the council are especially sensitive. Last month, controversy erupted after Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents Roxbury, said council president Michael Flaherty had used his veto power in a way that amounted to "institutional racism."

"Councilor Kelly over the last 20 years had matured and evolved and become a little more moderate," said Charles Yancey, who represents Mattapan and parts of Dorchester and had joined Turner in criticizing Flaherty last month.

"His position on this issue tends to turn the clock back to the '70s," Yancey said of Kelly's letter. "Even creating the appearance that he condones what was said threatens to hurt the image that he has worked hard to rebuild over the last couple of years."

Yesterday WEEI confirmed that the show's cohost Gerry Callahan, joined in the on-air remarks that made reference to the escaped gorilla being a participant in the Metco program.

Last Sunday, a gorilla named Little Joe escaped from Franklin Park Zoo; during his foray, he rested at a bus stop.

WEEI officials confirmed that Dennis actually said, "Yeah, yeah. He was a Metco gorilla."

"Heading out to Lexington," Callahan replied.

"Yeah, exactly," Dennis said.

Officials declined to say whether Callahan will face disciplinary action.

A source familiar with discussions at the station said WEEI officials will meet next week with Metco to discuss possible "ways to heal the damage that's been done," including internships at the station for Metco students.

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