The most surprising part of A&E suspending “Duck Dynasty” cast member Phil Robertson indefinitely for his anti-gay and other comments in the January GQ isn’t the fact an elderly man from the Deep South who is famous for being on a show based on conservative and religious views would say such things.
Nor is the network’s gross overreaction in suspending Phil in an attempt to separate themselves from the controversial remarks faster than Walmart and Target could discount their Paula Deen cooking lines.
It’s the number of people who took to Facebook, Twitter, memes and other forms of social media in support of Phil Robertson’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The only issue with attempting to use the Constitution to shield Robertson from A&E’s wrath, is that the First Amendment only offers protection for speech from the United States government. That right has since been incorporated to offer protection from state governments but it has yet to be extended to private companies, other citizens and television network companies.
This means that the First Amendment has no role in the debate over A&E’s decision. Put another way, Phil Robertson’s suspension is not a freedom of speech issue.
The First Amendment protects Phil from being prosecuted by the government for his speech. The government cannot place him in jail for his words or views. Nor can the government confiscate his property or take his money because they disagree with him.
This was a legitimate concern the Founding Fathers had when they formed a new country and wrote the Constitution’s amendments to offer citizens protection from the government. They weren’t too worried about offering people protection from other citizens or cable networks. They left that to the free marketplace of ideas.
A&E’s decision to suspend Phil is a business decision aimed at pleasing sponsors and not one based on Constitutional violations.
But it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“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 Duck Dynasty,” the network said in a statement Wednesday.
Jason Robertson, one of the funniest people on the show and in the world, claims to have waited until marriage to sleep with his wife and believes his children will make the same decision.
Each show ends with the family sitting around the table in prayer. So it’s hard for the network to say Phil Robertson’s beliefs are not reflected in the series. The entire series is based on his family, the business he started and his family’s religious beliefs.
The network knew exactly what it was getting when it signed the show and extended it several seasons. It’s interesting to watch the network separate itself, and the series, from the same beliefs that it built a marketing empire around.
It should be noted the expression of Phil Robertson’s beliefs were not done disrespectfully.
It’s disrespectful when a professional basketball player calls a referee a derogatory name because he lacks the ability to fully express his frustrations by any other means than using homophobic language to imply someone is less of a person because of who they love. It’s disrespectful when a musician uses the same racial slur or other slurs 47 times in an album and calls it art because he lacks the creativity and intelligence to actually say something meaningful.
It’s not disrespectful for a person to hold a certain set of beliefs and to fully explain those beliefs to someone else, regardless if everyone agrees. The advantage of living in a country with free speech is the exchange of ideas and discussions of various viewpoints.
The discussion on same-sex marriage, gay rights and other issues has changed drastically the past couple of years. Anti-gay remarks are now treated with the same disdain that was once reserved for pro-gay comments just a few years ago.
It’s important to continue having these discussions because these conversations go a long way toward social progress, but moves like A&E’s suspension of Phil Robertson–for expressing his religious and personal believes–risk freezing further dialog on important social issues.
Phil Robertson isn’t a politician. He isn’t attempting to turn his religious beliefs into law that governs anyone else. He is a self-made millionaire turned reality star. Who cares what he thinks about anything? If his beliefs offend you, you are giving his words too much weight.