The Tangled Web Of Free Speech

I watched Duck Dynasty once…for about ten minutes. As a guy from the West Coast, fond of city life and far from comfortable with anything Southern, I changed channels. One of the advantages of living in the United States is a reasonably high level of choice in entertainment. As I could tell fairly quickly that the Robertson family and I would not be birds of a feather, I exercised that choice to leave.

It is easy to imagine many millions of Americans feeling the same way about Phil Robertson and his “reality” show (which, like all reality shows, is produced and semi-scripted.) The popularity of the show is relative, in the same way that the popularity of cable news is relative. Fox News likes to crow about its ratings, and MSNBC likes to crow about its ratings gains in the key demographic, but “popular” shows on cable just aren’t seen by a large number of Americans. The show about Louisiana outdoorsmen and their families is watched by an average of 14 million folks every week.

Now 14 million may sound like a large number, but it represents less than 5% of all Americans. A majority of Americans would find the show lacking or even offensive, yet it is able to thrive on a cable network. That is an excellent example of free speech; when the diversity of choice available as alternatives to the show are considered, our rights to self-expression would seem to be well-established.

Somehow, however, Duck Dynasty and the comments of its patriarch have become a kind of ground zero for the national debate on free speech. Martin Bashir’s pointed suggestion that Sarah Palin experience just how bad the slave experience was in the United States (by, for example, having someone defecate in her mouth) apparently wasn’t a good choice to play the same role. Bashir was roundly criticized for his choice of free speech, his employer sensed the consumer push-back, and Bashir was “resigned”. A&E, following the lead of social media, has found something of a split-decision. But what is really going on here?

This controversy, which is driven by networks on social media, is sustained by three key points:

  1. Surprise- We the people are pretending that we are surprised that Phil Robertson and his family don’t hold urban moderate or liberal views on ethnic minorities, religion, or sexual preference. That they have the right to hold those views, we the people hold as self-evident. And Duck Dynasty never gives an indication that they are anything but what they represent. A&E certainly knew the viewpoints of the clan prior to airing the show.
  2. Hypocrisy- Liberals who defended Martin Bashir should not have attacked Phil Robertson. Conservatives who attacked Martin Bashir, should not have played the martyr card on Phil Robertson’s behalf, but the martyr card has become the go-to response for evangelical Christians in any situation where someone publicly disagrees with their beliefs. A&E should either cancel the show, or stand behind it with a disclaimer…”suspending” Robertson is ridiculous. The man will not change his belief system while on hiatus, and to demand he do so is almost certainly a violation of the terms under which he was hired.
  3. Constitutional Ignorance- The First Amendment is specifically and exclusively presented as a protection from federal government interference in the form of laws that a) establish a national religion b) prohibit the free exercise of religion c) regulate the press d) interfere with the people’s rights to peaceful assembly and redress of federal grievances.

Protection from the commercial or social consequences of speech is not part of the Constitution. In fact, commercial and social consequences to speech are¬†protected as expressions of speech themselves. One’s ability to be angry at A&E for suspending Robertson is itself a protected commercial consequence of speech.

The rights of employees to speak are limited when it comes to the image and/or brand of their employer. Conservatives generally see this reality of law as supporting the rights of “job creators”…at least in those cases where the job-creators are conservatives and the employees are liberal. If Robertson was the member of a union, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I believe the hypocrisy among us all over speech, protection, and political correctness has reached shocking levels. We the people, and that means all of us (yours truly included), have become far to willing to demand the protection of speech we are comfortable with, and attack speech which insults our own beliefs or feelings. But just as this hypocrisy could prove fatal to our union, so it stems from a noble purpose.

Somewhere there exists a line between the acceptance of freedom and denial of contrary concepts. This is the challenge of free democracy; the paradox that to be completely free one must accept the right of others to use their freedom contrary to one’s own purpose or belief. And just as conflicts arise between democracy and commerce, so commerce comes into conflict with freedom. It is a perfectly American choice to spread the word about a bad experience with a business. It is a perfectly American choice to participate in a boycott of a business. But what of the businesses boycotted; what if the reason for the boycott were the words or actions of a single person associated with the business? These are the difficult questions that challenge our belief in real freedom.

Duck Dynasty, like Rush Limbaugh and Martin Bashir before them, must be resolved through marketplace actions alone. I don’t watch the program, and I don’t encourage anyone to watch it either, but if A&E wants to show the program that is their business. Like a number of cable channels once given to intellectual programming that enriched the entertainment experience (History and Discovery, I am looking at you as well), A&E has sold its commercial soul to the reality show devil and pop-pseudo-science-fiction. It runs cheap to produce shows that attract people in the same sordid manner as a supermarket tabloid.

And if A&E doesn’t need my viewing to be profitable, then it shouldn’t program to my taste. But fans of A&E and Duck Dynasty should stop demanding that I not express my free speech. My feelings about the consequences attendant to fundamentalist religion and its expression are every bit my right to express as Robertson’s feelings. And I have every bit the same right to tell A&E I won’t watch their programs as the fans of Duck Dynasty have to defend their favorite character. I don’t like or agree with the sentiments expressed on that show, and by the patriarch of that show in other forums. As a consequence, I will encourage others I know not to patronize the network.

The defenders of Duck Dynasty make their play, and those like me make ours…the marketplace decides as it does with all commercial products. When sufficient customers are willing to utilize the product at a price that makes the product profitable, then the product remains. Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern stand as proofs that this concept extends to media. If the bean-counters at A&E decide that their margins are adversely impacted by Robertson’s worldview, Duck Dynasty fans need not fear; you can always visit the family in the swamp. That is what happens when free speech and capitalism collide.

And if you don’t like that notion, then you might be a communist.


The Rational Middle is listening…

2 thoughts on “The Tangled Web Of Free Speech

  1. I must also admit that I DO watch the show for occasionally. I do find some "reality" shows entertaining and this one in particular is a bit refreshing in that the characters are all portrayed as fairly normal funny compassionate people with a food sense of family values. In the maybe 10 episodes I have watched I have never once heard anything offensive.

  2. I don't agree with all of the comments made by Mr Robertson but reading the full interview I don't take offense to them. He was stating his beliefs. I agree that publicly stating them should allows his "employers" the right to reprimand him how they see fit though.

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