Hey friends! Let’s talk about free speech.
As a journalist, the first amendment is probably my very favorite amendment, although I am personally fond of 13, 15 and 19 as well. I also think that the first amendment is the one of the most misunderstood.
It says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Well, that’s neat. It really is. Many immigrants to this country were fleeing religious prosecution and still today censorship is the norm in many countries (what’s up China).
But let’s focus on “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” In the past few weeks, freedom of speech has been a hot button issue for rednecks everywhere after Phil Robertson, patriarch of the ever-popular Duck Dynasty clan, gave an interview in GQ. In the interview, Robertson shared some graphic opinions regarding homosexuality and claimed that African Americans were both happier and holier before civil rights.
Personally, I find his views abhorrent. But I wholeheartedly believe he has the right to those views. And GQ has the right to print them. Anyone who tries to argue that right would get an earful from me.
I also firmly believe that A&E – the network which airs Duck Dynasty – has the right to suspend Robertson and even cancel the show.
Robertson was suspended soon after the interview printed and the internet went crazy. Fans claimed that A&E’s decision infringed on both Robertson’s right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
No. It did not. Robertson can say anything he wants. It’s the first amendment, a Constitutionally protected right. But we can look back at the text and note that nowhere does it either imply or explicitly that you will be free from consequences for your words. I am free to come into work and scream at the top of my lungs that my boss is a moron and degenerate (not Mark, of course), but he is also free to fire me for it. Religiously affiliated companies often have strict behavioral contracts including vague terminology along the lines of “don’t do anything we won’t like.”
A&E has decided, rightfully or not, that Robertson’s views do not reflect their company values and are reconsidering their affiliation with him. Obviously homosexuality is a popular and divisive issue and Duck Dynasty is a popular show, which may be why the outcry is so intense and divided. Regardless of where you stand on this, it is not an issue of free speech. Looking at reactions, the criticism is focused on either A&E or Robertson himself. Neither GQ or Drew Magary, the journalist who conducted the interview and wrote the story, have received any significant criticism. Nor should they since the first amendment protects the freedom of the press to print even the most offensive quotes.
When I was in college, the student newspaper I worked for ran a Holocaust denial ad on our website. Was it offensive? Yes. Should we have done it? I don’t know. I think it may have been unnecessary. Was it our right to do so? Absolutely.
Anytime someone would argue with me about whether or not we could run such an ad -which everyone was keen to do – my only response was ‘do you believe in freedom of speech. Yes? Then yes, it must have been infuriating. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press did not, however, protect from losing ad revenue from companies who no longer wanted to be associated with the publication. Nor should it have.
Robertson had the right to say what he said. GQ had the right to print it. A&E had the right to disassociate itself from views it does not agree with. And consumers have the right to react however they choose.
But it is not an issue of free speech.