Let Freedom Quack - Duck Dynasty, A&E, and Freedom of Speech
Free Speech Poll (you'll be polled again at the end to see if you were paying attention)
Do you think Phil Robertson's Free Speech rights were infringed upon with his suspension by A&E?
A&E has a reality show called Duck Dynasty, which features a family of backwoods Louisiana entrepreneurs who own a hugely successful company called Duck Commander. It's basically the Beverly Hillbillies, only instead of striking oil, they Frank Caliendo'd some duck calls; and instead of leaving behind their swamp dwellings for a cosmopolitan city, they're racist. It is the most popular non-fiction show in the history of cable television. (Really)
In the interest of full disclosure, I've never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty. Prior to this week, for all I knew, it was a reality Redneck fashion show starring the secret love children of Osama Bin Laden and Z.Z. Top, which sounds awesome.
Unless you live under a rock, or just recently returned from space, you may have heard that the patriarch of this family - Phil Robertson - sparked quite the controversy over comments in a recent interview with GQ Magazine in which he equated homosexuality and bestiality, and had questionable comments about race relations in the South.
If you're like me, upon hearing his remarks for the first time, you probably shook your head in disbelief at the surreality of it all, and asked in amazement, "How in the hell is Phil Robertson doing an interview with GQ Magazine?" And you would be right to ask that, as Phil Robertson and GQ go together like waterskiing and cats.
I'm not going to cite his specific comments (see here), as they're irrelevant to the point of this article. The point is that, when the story broke, A&E suspended Robertson from the show for his remarks. Approximately 4 nanoseconds after that happened, Twitter and facebook exploded in a whirlwind of Free Speech debate, and quickly demonstrated that roughly 10 out of 10 Americans have no idea what Free Speech means, or what the First Amendment is about. Fans of Phil and the show began yelling about how A&E had violated his Free Speech; and followed that to its logical conclusion that we're losing America, that Christians are being persecuted, and that this is all a sign of the End of Days (because also Miley Cyrus).
If this all sounds like a slight overreaction, it's because it is. Mainly on the grounds that A&E did not violate Phil Robertson's Free Speech because A&E cannot violate Phil Robertson's Free Speech. How's that, you ask?
Here's a refresher:
What "Free Speech" Means
The first thing you should notice is the opening subject: "Congress [shall make]...."
According to the Bill of Rights Institute:
"This clause prohibits the government from banning speech because it does not agree with the message." (emphasis mine)
Those words in bold hold the key to this entire brouhahah. The issue of Free Speech in the United States of America is all about what control the government has over the voice of the people, which is essentially none. Free Speech grants every citizen the right to speak their mind without fear of arrest or censorship by the government. It is a contract between The Government and The People. Those are the only two parties it pertains to. The consequences of speech between private parties (ie: Phil Robertson and A&E) when sensitive remarks are made are entirely at the discretion of the parties involved. Free Speech means that you are free to say whatever you wish without ending up in jail for it.
What "Free Speech" Does NOT Mean
Free Speech does not mean you can say whatever you want without any recourse. Words have consequences, and just because the government can't do anything to you doesn't mean nobody else can. Here's a very short and incomplete list of adverse effects you might expect to suffer by saying whatever you want:
• You may be grounded (or spanked!) by parents
• You may be fined by a governing body
• You may be suspended from school
• You may be benched by a coach
• You may be sued by an offended party
• You may be placed on leave or fired from a job
• You may be socially ridiculed
• You may be demoted from a position
• You may be boycotted by consumers
• You may lose an endorsement deal from a sponsor
• You may be dumped by a significant other
• You may even punched in the teeth if you mouth off to the wrong person on the street
Constitutional Free Speech doesn't protect you from any of the above. The bottom line is that, as long as it wasn't the government meting out any of those consequences, Free Speech doesn't factor into the discussion. End of Story. Denying someone's Free Speech means silencing them from a platform to which they're entitled. Phil Robertson is not entitled to his A&E show. It's not a right. So, removing him from the program can't logically be a revocation of anything since he's not entitled to what A&E took from him.
Another Way of Looking at It
Let's use a simple parallel to illustrate the point that's being made here. Instead of talking about Free Speech, let's discuss cheating. Just as nobody wants their Free Speech rights impinged upon, nobody wants to be cheated on. But implicit in the word itself is a specific association between parties. Cheating on you is not something that can be done by anyone. It's a term that only applies if we're talking about significant others: boyfriends/girlfriends, fiancees or spouses. Outside of that affiliation, it's a non-starter. You can't claim you neighbor cheated on you. You can claim the mailman cheated on you. You can't claim a sports team, celebrity or corporation cheated on you. That word doesn't apply to your association with those parties.
Remember the Dixie Chicks?
One of the things that's interesting to me in this whole fiasco is that the primary demographic (Red State Conservatives) that is all up-in-arms over Phil's suspension is the exact same demographic that flipped directly out when the Dixie Chicks made their comments about President Bush to a British audience in 2003. If you don't remember, it was right before the US invaded Iraq, and lead singer Natalie Maines told a bunch of London concertgoers they were embarrassed that George Bush was also from Texas. Everyone in the South promptly lost their respective minds, smashing albums, boycotting concerts, and other sensible things. The girls got crucified by Conservative media pundits, stores yanked their albums from shelves, and radio stations refused to air their music.
The point of bringing that up is not to comment on whether or not Maines' comments were accurate, appropriate, inflammatory or anything else. It's to remark on the fact that everyone who reacted the way they did was perfectly within their rights to do so - regardless of how much or little anyone else agreed with their reaction - and none of them seemed to think they were violating anybody's Free Speech in doing so (because they weren't). Perhaps they should remember that lesson now that the shoe's on the other foot.
Gilbert Gottfried's Tsunami Joke
Probably the closest parallel in recent memory to the Phil Robinson case was comedian Gilbert Gottfried's jokes about the Tsunami that devastated Japan. For those of you who don't know, Gottfried was the long-time voice of the Aflac duck. Gottfried made a couple of jokes about the Tsunami (during his standup routine, not during an Aflac commercial) that were deemed insensitive and "too soon," and as a result, was let go by Aflac. Aflac didn't try to shut him up. They just decided that if he was going to say things in public that were inappropriate and offensive to a vast section of the population, they weren't going to associate with him. They're a private company, and that was their right.