On Wednesday, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson made comments in a GQ interview condemning homosexuality as sinful and comparable to bestiality, as well as claiming that African Americans were better off under Jim Crow laws. A&E, the network that airs the program, has since suspended Robertson from filming, prompting conservatives to rush to his defense. Even some prominent lawmakers are insisting that his free speech is in danger.
Bobby Jindal (R), governor of Louisiana, which is where Duck Dynasty is filmed, argued that TV networks no longer believe in the First Amendment:
Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.
If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson. Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that, he was suspended from his job. In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him–but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree.
Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was similarly worried about the fate of free speech:
Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.
In addition, a Facebook page called Stand with Phil Robertson now has over 700,000 “Likes” — more than double what it had Thursday morning — and directs visitors to a “petition” that collects information for the Tea Party-affiliated Patriot Action Network and urges A&E to apologize to Robertson. The conservative group Faith Driven Consumer has its own petition asserting that Robertson was “discriminated against” and should be reinstated immediately. A Twitter profile called simply @BoycottAETV now has over 11,000 followers, producing memes with messages like, “Freedom of speech is not just for liberals!” Even Herman Cain thinks “this crap is out of control.”
These outraged messages have largely defended Robertson’s anti-gay comments as an expression of his religious beliefs without acknowledging his remarks that African Americans were better off without full civil rights. On that point, they have been notably silent. Moreover, nothing about this situation has anything to do with “free speech.”
Robertson is a free man. He has not been arrested for his beliefs. He could continue to say whatever he’d like and, given the current media frenzy, it would probably be quickly published in many other places. Robertson could even take to his own website and publish whatever he wants to say, and individuals could share it through social media the world over. His freedom of speech has been in no way encumbered.
A&E, as a company, enjoys constitutional protections as well, and is under no obligation to provide a platform for messages it disagrees with. The network’s statement suspending Robertson from filming was telling in this regard: “His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” A&E is not Robertson’s employer, lest it be forgotten that the show Duck Dynasty is about his actual business, Duck Commander, which produces duck calls and other related (and not-so-related) products.
What actually is taking place is that conservatives are taking umbrage because a fellow conservative’s beliefs are being publicly criticized. This happens all the time. When Chick-fil-A head Dan Cathy, whose company gives millions of dollars annually to anti-gay groups, said that homosexuality is “twisted up kind of stuff” that is “inviting God’s judgment,” LGBT groups called for awareness-raising and boycotts while conservatives rushed to show their “appreciation.” The exact opposite happened when companies like Starbucks and General Mills announced their support for marriage equality: LGBT groups offered praise, while anti-gay groups vowed to dump their products.
All of this is emblematic of free speech. Free speech allows citizens to say things that are offensive and unpopular and it allows other citizens to disagree, as well as to choose whether to provide an ongoing platform for those remarks. If anything, the claim that Robertson’s free speech has somehow been inhibited is just a straw man to avoid addressing the merits of what he actually said: that all gay people are going to Hell and that African Americans don’t deserve a seat at the lunch counter.