‘Duck Dynasty’ and the free consequences of free speech


    The suspension of backwoods reality TV star Phil Robertson has predictably infuriated conservatives, who seem to think that anyone who voices ignorance automatically deserves full protection from the consequences of voicing ignorance. Back in the day, they must’ve flunked civics class.

    The Duck Dynasty patriarch and Bible devotee has been consigned to limbo by the A&E cable network after telling GQ magazine (in the spirit of Rick Santorum) that gay sex is akin to godless bestiality; and insisting (in the spirit of bygone southern racists) that black people were actually happier when they were second-class citizens in the Jim Crow era. In Robertson’s words, “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” I could elaborate on his riff about homosexuality (“degrading to the human soul”) – most notably his detailed disquisitions on sexual genitalia – but you get the idea.

    Naturally, conservatives claim that Robertson’s free speech rights have been violated – constitutional scholar Sarah Palin crayons that “free speech is an endangered species” – but this is a twisted misunderstanding of how our system works. I’ll keep it simple: Americans are free to say pretty much anything they want – but free speech is not necessarily free of consequences. Robertson has the right to sound off like a buffoon, and A&E, as a matter of corporate policy, has the right to distance itself from his buffoonery.

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    I’ll put it another way: The First Amendment protects the free-speech practitioner from government laws that seek to curb his speech; but it does not protect the practitioner from how other Americans might react to his speech.

    And I’ll put it another way: The First Amendment ensures that you can speak freely (short of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, according to the Supreme Court) without being handcuffed and shipped to jail; but it doesn’t free you from potential public backlash.

    Deep down, conservatives know all this. For instance, every time actor Sean Penn says something flagrantly left-wing, they jerk their knees and demand that Americans boycott his movies – which merely demonstrates that their tolerance for provocative free speech is highly selective. If someone like Penn, or Tim Robbins, or Susan Sarandon speaks out in a way that ticks them off, they insist that there should be consequences.

    If a studio dropped Penn because of something he said, or if a cosmestics company dropped Sarandon because of something she said, would conservatives take to the barricades to defend the actors’ free speech? Not a chance. They’d pound their keyboards in celebration. But when a reactionary like Robertson suffers consequences for voicing provocative speech…well, that’s deemed to be an outrage! A curb on his free speech! Boycott the A&E network! (Yawn. This flap will quickly fade, as flaps like this always do. The show will go on. Robertson will be featured in the already-filmed nine episodes that debut next month.)

    Sorry, conservatives can’t have it both ways. If they think that speakers with whom they disagree should be exposed to consequences, then it logically follows that speakers with whom they sympathize should be similarly exposed – to the countervailing views of citizens, employers, and advertisers.

    Nevertheless, I don’t want to champion A&E for exercising its freedom to impose consequences. (“We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series….His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.”)  Because, frankly, the network should not have been surprised in the first place.

    Really, what were the A&E suits thinking? They made a TV star out of a redneck who blows up birds and talks like a rube – yet now they’re shocked shocked to discover that their meal ticket talks off-camera exactly like viewers of the show would’ve expected. How fortunate for the A&E suits that in America there is an unfettered freedom to be stupid.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


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