The right to free speech isn't just a fundamental American value; it's enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution. If only the most loud-mouthed among us actually understood what it says. Here's what the First Amendment offers: you can say, write or publish pretty much whatever you want, no matter how offensive (with a few exceptions), and the government can't step in and censor you or put you in jail. Here's what the first amendment doesn't do: allow you to say, write or publish whatever you want, no matter how offensive, and also entitle you to a giant pay check from your starring role on a cable reality TV show.
This isn't exactly Harvard-level legal theory, but many Republicans, Christian organizations and garden-variety tweeters enjoy spouting off about their love of freedom and the Constitution while remaining disturbingly unaware of what the Bill of Rights actually says and means. The right-wing passion for a set of ideals they claim to revere – but remain ignorant of – is not new, but it's news again this week. They're up in arms at the suspension of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for a series of homophobic and bigoted remarks he made to GQ magazine. Professional consequences for bigoted comments, they say, violate the constitutional right to free speech.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said:
Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don't agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views.
Yes, everyone is entitled to express his or her views. Not everyone is entitled to keep their jobs, though, if they decide to express views that are entirely odious and potentially costly to their employer. Certainly the founders didn't mean "free country" as short-hand for "free to be on the reality show of your choice."
Jindal's argument that liberals are tolerant of everything except intolerance is Tweedle Dumb to the similarly vapid adage "everyone is entitled to their opinion". Everyone has opinions; but why, exactly, are all opinions deserving of the same deference and respect? Especially when they come from people who can't tell the difference between promoting tolerance and respect of all human beings, and objecting when someone makes a comment that demonizes an already marginalized group?
This isn't to say that A&E is entirely innocent here. They created a show based around a group of people who are obvious loose canons with questionable viewpoints. Then they feign shock when those same loose canons express their questionable viewpoints in the media. Crass and mercenary? Absolutely. But violating constitutional precepts? Not even close.
Not one to be outdone when it comes to publicly idiocy, Sarah Palin jumped in with her creative interpretation of the first amendment. She wrote on Facebook:
Free speech is an endangered species. Those "intolerants" hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.
She would know. By that logic, Palin herself was censored by the American public of "intolerants" when we declined to elect her vice president of the United States, leaving her with only a book deal, speaking engagements and, yes, a reality show to pay the bills.
Robertson's statements were bigoted by any reasonable definition, not just in the opinion of us "hatin' intolerants". The homophobia has been getting the most press, but don't worry, there's racism as well. When it comes to gay people, Robertson said:
It seems like, to me, a vagina – as a man – would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: it's not logical, my man. It's just not logical.
It's probably not news to most folks that as a straight man, Roberts is likely to be more interested in a woman's vagina than a man's anus. How another man's interest in other men's underwear-parts impacts Roberts is beyond me. But apparently it makes other men have more sex with women and also an animal here or there, because sin:
Starts with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.
Start with a male anus, and next thing you know, you're screwing every woman on the block, and a few particularly attractive neighborhood goats. No one said bigotry was logical. Robertson continued:
Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won't inherit the kingdom of God. Don't deceive yourself. It's not right.
Perhaps he should take it as a blessing, then, that his personal greed will no longer be enabled by A&E. Robertson went on to discuss the cotton-field musicals of happy black people in the Jim Crow south:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field … they're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, "I tell you what: these doggone white people" – not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Actually, singing the blues is exactly what a lot of black people were doing in the pre-Civil Rights era South, but facts aren't exactly Robertson's strong suit. Neither, you will be shocked to learn, is his understanding of geopolitical history:
All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I'll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That's 80 years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.
If you want to talk about groups that are known for their propensity for killing, you might want to start with Robertson's home state of Louisiana, which boasts the highest murder rate in the country. And Robertson's assertions about where Jesus is and isn't allowed are embarrassingly wrong. But not any more wrong than Bobby Jindal, who – as an elected executive official – one would expect to have at least a tenuous grasp of the bill of rights. Jindal said:
I remember when TV networks believed in the first Amendment. It is a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.
In what golden age of television did networks believe in the first amendment, apparently letting people say whatever they wanted regardless of their network affiliation? Because last time I checked, the major networks won't even broadcast the word "blowjob" in primetime, let alone open their airways to anything and everything (can you even say "anus" on TV?).
The right to freely speak your mind without government interference is crucial. But few of us are permitted in the course of our employment to say whatever we want without consequence from our employer. Being on a reality show is Robertson's job. He disgraced his employer and made comments so offensive that A&E would almost surely have seen an audience and advertiser backlash had they not reacted swiftly. Declining to continue filming someone for a reality television show after they let loose a series of asinine and bigoted remarks in a magazine interview is not "discrimination", no matter how much Christian organizations insist it is. It is not an indication that A&E refuses to treat faith-based consumers' views "with equality and respect". It does not mean A&E "excludes the views of faith-driven consumers and effectively censors a legitimate viewpoint held by the majority of Americans".
Unless by not featuring me on a reality show, A&E is censoring me and my legitimately-held viewpoints. Where's Bobby Jindal when I need him?
These are the same folks, by the way, who cry foul, demand apologies and insist companies pull their ads from major networks whenever Britney Spears moves her butt in a way that stirs their shorts. Gyrating hips? Time for a sex panic. A tirade of ignorance about gay people, African-Americans, Muslims, Shintos and vast swaths of Eastern and Central Europe? Just another day in a GOP where the leading argument against Obamacare this week is, "That pajama dude in the ad looks like a fag".
Robertson is still entitled to say whatever he wants to GQ, Bobby Jindal or anyone else who will listen. He is entitled to do so without fearing imprisonment, arrest, government censure or any other punishment from the police or the courts. Americans are fortunate to live in a country that offers us such openness. Robertson, like any of us, is entitled to the full enjoyment of that freedom.
What he's not entitled to is a reality show.