On Phil Robertson, and the First Amendment with him.

“How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied…Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the best revenge.”

–From the ACLU’s website.

Phil Robertson is a guy I don’t get when it comes to success. He and the rest of the Robertson clan are booming reality television stars with their own line of clothing, wine, duck calls, and more. The ZZ Top beards, the “Hey Jack,” the fact that we give rednecks shows designed to make fun of them but actually endear them to the public; I don’t get any of it, but I support it. If a dude like Phil Robertson can get his money from making duck calls and end up getting a TV show deal from it, more power to him.

Recently, though, Phil has been a naughty boy in the eyes of the world. He’s been accused of being HOMOPHOBIC for comments in a GQ interview where he defends his views on the Christian faith. As a result of Phil’s allegedly HOMOPHOBIC comments, he’s been suspended from the A&E television show “Duck Dynasty” indefinitely and will not return for the upcoming season’s filming. Cue moral outrage from conservative Christians, cue moral outrage from the LGBT community for Phil’s family not hanging him out to dry at this crisis moment.

I’m not going to recap the actual quotes here; rather I’ll let you do a search for them yourself. What I’m interested in is the repercussions of the incident and how they intertwine with our views of “free speech.” Let’s begin, shall we?

First, Phil Robertson’s GQ quotes and their eventual ramifications have nothing to do with “free speech” or the First Amendment. Nothing. The First Amendment deals with government actions suppressing speech, and A&E is not a government actor. As a result, whether we like it or not, A&E is free to ban Phil Robertson for life from their network if they so choose. Free speech does not extend everywhere; it extends only in the private sector to the point where we allow it. This is also why Paula Deen was banned from the Food Network for allegedly using the “N-Word” in a deposition for a Federal lawsuit. Food was within their rights to pull their support of Deen as they were a private organization.

Second, Ken White–the lead contributor for the excellent Popehat blog, which I discuss occasionally here–makes an excellent point in these situations. It is right and good for people who say dumb things to suffer social consequences as a result of their actions. Such is a by-product of us living in society–people will say dumb things, and we expect they should suffer for it. What is not right, however, is the point when we demand government action over speech with which we disagree, and that happens more than one would think. The numerous FCC complaints circulating to television networks over silly matters such as Bart Simpson mooning someone are proof positive that we need to keep government action out of the free speech racket.

Third, Phil Robertson is a practicing Christian. He’s even been quoted as saying his family are “bible thumpers who somehow happened to end up on television.” One tenet of fundamental evangelical Christianity is that homosexuality is a sin. If you read the actual QUOTE OF SHAME from Robertson, it’s not him condemning homosexuality. It’s not him equating homosexuality with bestiality. It is speaking of his views of homosexuality in the broader moral context of sin. Christianity as a whole is concerned with sin, and the ramifications of sin on its believers. The message of love is also mixed with the message of the consequences of the open defiance of God through sin, and how that will affect someone. In essence, Robertson was expressing his religious belief structure. This is nothing new for the Robertson clan; its members speak regularly at revivals and church functions. We are concerned with the free exercise of religion in America, as much as we are concerned with the freedoms some require to be away from religion in America. This is why we nod our heads in approval whenever we see someone practicing their beliefs. Are we not disingenuous when a man speaks his mind concerning his views and we then condemn him for it because we personally don’t agree with them?

Fourth, and another supporting point with the above: Duck Dynasty isn’t exactly mental stimulation. It’s a show designed to make fun of rednecks. We fully knew that a guy who styles his world philosophy around the mantra of “Faith, Family, and Facial Hair” was going to say something that offended us at some point. Are we really surprised that he’s done it now to the point where moral outrage is necessary? We all knew it was eventually coming. We did. So why do we concern ourselves with it now? Getting angry over Phil Robertson espousing his deeply held religious convictions is akin to poking a tiger with a sharp stick. It may be fun now, but you’re going to get hurt over it eventually.

The real problem here that most people have isn’t Phil Robertson’s comments. It’s his lack of an apology, donation to a LGBT charity, and subsequent hand-wringing. This is common fodder in today’s world for those who get the gift of “celebrity”–if you say something the rest of society deems as “inappropriate” or offensive, you’re to take the following steps immediately:

1. Issue an apology.
2. Make a donation to a charity of the group you offended, or go do some community work for the group you offended.
3. Embark on a public spree of self-flagellation over your actions.
4. Repeat until such time as your faux pas is forgotten.

Michael Richards did it. Tracy Morgan did it. Paula Deen’s done it. Now we expect Phil Robertson to do the same thing, and he refuses to bow to public pressure to do so. As a result, he must be mocked, scorned, and ridiculed for standing by his convictions. We applaud this in everyday life, but when it’s something with which we disagree, we say “shame on you sir” and “how dare you feel a certain way and SHAME ON YOU for being backwards and un-modern” and more.

This brings me back to the above comment from the ACLU. Instead of silencing Phil Robertson, we should talk more about why he says what he does. Instead of banning him from TV, we should allow him to speak his mind. If he’s truly an idiot for what he believes, he will be exposed as such with further time and he will eventually be discredited fully in the public eye for repeated acts of stupidity–not just one thing that was taken out of context. Instead of trying to silence him because he holds a certain view, talk with those around you who share his view, explain your view, and open a dialogue. That’s how the marketplace of ideas flows, and that’s how we have truly “free speech.”

Or go ahead and condemn Phil Robertson and suggest he be silenced. When it happens to you, don’t start complaining about how your rights were violated since you condoned it elsewhere.

The real heinous actors are the suits at A&E who hung one of their television stars out to dry the moment he said something out of line with commonly held views of what is “appropriate.” This isn’t about speech, it isn’t about offensive behavior–it’s about money. A&E knows that GLAAD and other special interest groups will begin putting public pressure on their network for giving Phil Robertson a platform to endorse his views, and A&E is afraid of losing those coveted advertising dollars and sponsorships as a result. Therefore, A&E silenced Phil Robertson in the name of the all-mighty dollar. That’s truly despicable behavior in my eyes–putting someone out to pasture so you can retain an extra buck.

Shame on Phil Robertson? No, because this was bound to happen. Shame on YOU, A&E, for abandoning a man who chooses to stand firm in his convictions.

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