On Phil Robertson and the First Amendment

Yesterday, GQ published an interview with Phil Robertson, patriarch of the family featured on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” In it, Robertson expressed his views on sin, based on his Christian faith. In the article, Robertson “preached” about how America was going downhill and should repent. He said standards were slipping and that it seemed “sin was fine” now. When asked what he specifically meant by “sin” he listed several, beginning with homosexuality and suggesting that all the others branch off from there: bestiality, fornication etc…

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

He then demonstrated his ignorance of homosexuality by suggesting that it was a choice, saying that “for me anyway” the vagina offers so much more for a man than a man’s anus. Obviously, Robertson doesn’t understand how being gay works. Gays aren’t attracted to women, so their body parts do not arouse the gay libido, just like a “man’s anus” doesn’t arouse Phil Robertson (presumably).

He didn’t stop with the gays, either. He claimed that, because he didn’t personally witness anyone mistreating blacks in pre-civil rights era Louisiana, then everything must have been okay for the blacks.

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

In response, the Human Rights Campaign and the NAACP issued a joint letter to A&E calling on the network to repudiate the comments and on Phil Robertson to apologize. It should be noted that they never asked A&E to suspend him or do anything other than protect the network’s reputation for support of the LGBT community by addressing the situation. A&E responded by saying Robertson’s views do not reflect those of A&E or “Duck Dynasty.” So they suspended him indefinitely from the show about him and his family.

The entire drama played out in just a few hours. The social media response made the Paula Deen brouhaha look like an Easter parade.

“Duck Dynasty” is arguably the most popular show on cable television. They pull down crazy numbers. The Christmas special had something like 9 million viewers. Walmart has become a defacto “Duck Dynasty” outlet store. People love this show and they’re angry that A&E would suspend Robertson over his expression of what has been referred to alternately as “his opinion,” “his expression of faith,” or simply “the truth.”

I don’t watch the show. I don’t watch that particular genre of show. I prefer my entertainment scripted. So I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I do have an understanding of the First Amendment and this, despite what soooooo many on Facebook and Twitter think, is not a free speech issue.

The First Amendment says that the government can’t arrest you or punish you for what you say. A&E is not the government. They are a corporation and as such, the people who work on their programs are representative of that corporation. This includes Phil Robertson. So, if they think his remarks reflect poorly on the company, they are within their rights to pull the leash, which is what this suspension is — a reminder that Robertson works for A&E.

So, when Sarah Palin gets all high and mighty about how “freedom of speech is an endangered species” because Robertson’s leash got tugged, then she demonstrates her ignorance of what the First Amendment says. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindall says “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment” he is demonstrating his ignorance of the First Amendment. This is not a free speech issue. If Robertson wanted to go on TV today and say the exact same thing, he would be free to do so. No one is stopping him from speaking. A&E just decided they didn’t want to put him on TV anymore. That’s not dampening his speech. That’s tugging his leash.

So go ahead, conservatives. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of culture war. Rally around the old fake redneck and teach us all a lesson about intolerance and censorship. Just remember that Facebook and Twitter never forget, so if you screamed for Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin to lose their jobs over their stupid comments, you don’t have a leg to stand on here.

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