Duck Dynasty: Free Speech Rights?

The patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” franchize has been suspended from the show for making negative comments about gays and for his statement that African-Americans were better off before the civil rights movement. His suspension has riled far-right groups (who like to camouflage themselves by calling themselves conservatives) who accuse A&E of violating Phil Robertson’s religious and free speech rights. There are a number of problems with their position.

First, whatever religious rights he or anyone else may have, as the star of the “Duck Dynasty” show, he is not a spokesperson for any religion or religious belief; he is not, as someone has laughably stated, analogous to the Pope. It is the Pope’s job to take religious positions and to advocate for his church’s doctrines. It is Robertson’s job to provide footage for a television show whose purpose is to entertain viewers.

Second, although as an American citizen, Robertson has the right to express his views, as an employee of the A&E network, he does not. The First Amendment does not apply to his state of employment with the network. It is, in fact, ironic that people who would be the first to defend the right of employers to fire workers for whatever reason (“right to work” laws that could better be called “right to fire”) are here the first to jump in and defend the fired (suspended) employee. A&E is a commercial, not a journalistic or political or denominational, enterprise. (CNN made that point about itself when it fired the liberal firebrand Keith Olbermann for making donations to Democratic candidates without prior approval from the network–so what’s good for the right-wing conservative goose holds good for the liberal gander.) Not to mention that the owners of A&E have their own political/religious/whatever right to express their opinion of Robertson’s remarks by firing him.

Third, if Robertson has the right to his opinions, his critics have the right to their negative opinions of him, and just as much right to air them; and as consumers who determine A&E’s ratings, they have the right to withdraw their support for his show and cause its demise. That’s good ol’ consumer choice, is it not? A&E is certainly not going to thumb its nose at its viewers and continue to air a losing show.

Fourth, it should be noted that there is more than mere opinion at issue here. Robertson’s comments that blacks were better off before the civil rights movement, and his claim that he had never seen black people badly treated so therefore they must not have been, are historically inaccurate. Maybe he just wasn’t looking, or maybe he had selective vision; but a few vintage photographs of lynched blacks would be sufficient to make the opposite point. Perhaps such photos should be shown to Robertson’s defenders as well.

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