Throughout the United States, Americans trumpet free speech as one of our nation’s bedrock principles — that is, so long as the speaker’s message aligns with our personal views and tastes.
This week’s public outrage flashpoint is reaction to comments made by the patriarch of the family featured in the constructed reality TV show “Duck Dynasty.” Phil Robertson spoke his mind on various issues in an interview for GQ magazine; among the topics that led to his suspension from the show are his views on homosexuality and comments he made about African Americans.
For those only somewhat familiar with the show, Robertson is the guy who leads the family in prayer at the dinner table at the end of every episode. His conservative credentials are on display on a weekly basis — actually more frequently than that, since A&E shows re-runs of its most popular program on what seems like an endless tape loop.
Once Robertson’s comments — which include referring to gay people as “homosexual offenders” and saying that before the advent of federal entitlement programs black people “were happy; no one was singing the blues” — were publicized, gay and minority rights groups wasted no time in calling for retractions, apologies, organized outrage and TV banishment.
A&E responded by suspending Robertson from the show indefinitely. The family has since issued a statement that reads, in part: “We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm.”
Hmm, public outrage, calls for removal over personal statements — say, where have I heard that before?
A year ago, in the wake of Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher killing his girlfriend, Kassandra Perkins, before turning the gun on himself, NBC Sports personality Bob Costas was shredded by conservative groups for using his segment on “Sunday Night Football” to criticize the ease of access to firearms. As reported by ABC News, former South Carolina GOP executive director Todd Kincannon shot this message out on Twitter: “I think Bob Costas owes America an apology. And I think he should be fired from Sunday Night Football.”
Free speech isn’t free if it only works for those with whom you agree. And speaking of the First Amendment, let’s clear something up: Phil Robertson is not being denied any of his rights. He is free to believe and say whatever he chooses. A&E, which paved the road to riches for him and his family, also is within its rights to protect its franchise, but the network’s reaction is a bit sanctimonious since it was more than happy to make big bucks off of the celebration of “redneck life” that “Duck Dynasty” shamelessly promotes.
As Scott Collins wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The reality programming trend in recent years has made stars out of everyone from bakers to pawnbrokers to catfish-wranglers. That these ‘authentic’ people have opinions and values that don’t always jibe with those of the media elite in New York and Los Angeles isn’t necessarily surprising.”
Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University, told Collins: “If A&E didn’t like the Robertsons as they are, then why did they give them a weekly platform?”
Should A&E have suspended Robertson? No. Should left-leaning groups be outraged at his comments? It’s within their rights, but I would guess that until the GQ interview was published, many of those expressing outrage couldn’t tell you who Phil Robertson is. So why should what he personally believes matter? Especially when it is not promoted on “Duck Dynasty,” which is edited to steer clear of controversial topics.
That doesn’t make Robertson’s comments tolerable. There is an often-cited adage that applies here: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I would suggest that everyone fanning the flames on both sides of this issue pause for an hour and watch “Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech,” a fantastic documentary about a collection of cases involving freedom of speech issues. It provides some great lessons on why it is important to protect speech that we may find offensive.
The Robertsons and A&E will work out a compromise and this issue will be forgotten within weeks — there is simply too much money at stake for both parties. Those backing Robertson and those repulsed by his comments will find something else to serve as the target for their unflinching defense or unmitigated rage. There will be no dialogue, no teaching moment — only more calls for censorship and punishment the next time someone says something that falls outside someone else’s idea of what is right and good.