Is Free Speech Dead?By: Jeff Spector
UPDATE: A+E lifts suspension on Phil Robertson’s appearances on Duck Dynasty. New Season will start on Jan 15 and filming for new episodes including Robertson will film in the spring. A+E issued the following statement:
“While Phil’s comments made in the (GQ) interview reflect his personal views based on his own beliefs, and his own personal journey, he and his family have publicly stated they regret the ‘coarse language’ he used and the misinterpretation of his core beliefs based only on the article. He also made it clear he would ‘never incite or encourage hate.’”
I guess A+E realized which side of the bread their butter was actually on……
I started thinking about this as the Duck Dynasty controversy was just heating up. Thinking back over the past year, it seems that a number of people got themselves into hot water over things they have said. Paula Deen, Kanye West (I think he lives in Hot water), President Obama, Anthony Weiner, members of Congress and even a number of LDS General Authorities.
It used to be that folks would quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “The Friends of Voltaire,” 1906.) She actually wrote this quote, not Voltaire as some think.
Freedom of Speech has been one of the hallmarks of a democratic society and one of the founding principles of the United States. And while freedom of speech is not absolute (yelling “fire” in a crowded movie house, for example), great latitude has been given over the years as to what constitutes free speech. In many countries of the world, free speech is defined by the government and is very limited. Cross over the line and it may mean prison or even death in some cases. Even personal attacks in the form of slander and libel can be difficult to prove in a court of law and against a public person, almost impossible.
But these days, it seems as though the bar has been lowered as to what is deemed as free speech and what is not. It is more clearly in the eye of the beholder and if the beholder is offended, chances are you are going to hear about it.
It is particularly true in the commercial, media and political world. For example, Paula Deen confesses to have used the N-word in a legal deposition at some point in her life and as a result, her cooking empire was crushed. And yet, some groups of people use that word today in their every day speech and are, in some cases, recognized and rewarded for it.
So, we take the case of Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson. I must confess I have never watched a minute of the show, but I know these guys are everywhere. I was thinking that if Walmart were to have removed Duck Dynasty merchandise from their stores, they might have been half-empty the week before Christmas.
So, what did Phil Robertson actually say? Was it on the show or in some other venue? Most of you know by now, it was an interview in GQ magazine conducted by Drew Magary. The question put to Phil was:
“What, in your mind, is sinful?” To which Robertson now famously responded:
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “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.”(http://www.gq.com/entertainment/television/201401/duck-dynasty-phil-robertson#ixzz2ofsnf5qn)
Now, for many Christians that is garden variety doctrine. Nothing there was hateful, per se and is pretty inclusive of what is taught in most Churches week in and week out from the Bible. And Phil went on to say:
“We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”
That is also typical speech for the average Christian, even though it is probably a hard thing to refrain from doing.
We didn’t hear anything from the drunk or terrorist community, but we sure got an earful from the LGBT community and others and, a swift reaction from the A+E Network where the Duck Dynasty show is aired. He was suspended from the show indefinitely and here is a sampling of the reaction on what Phil said:
“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. His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.” (A+E)
“Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe,” said spokesperson Wilson Cruz. “He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans – and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.” (GLAAD)
“Phil Robertson’s homophobic and weirdly genital-fixated comments in GQ. His non-apology defense suggesting he’s not bigoted because he loves people. A&E’s suspenseful pregnant pause as the hours ticked by on Wednesday. And then a network response that went beyond what anybody expected: Booting Robertson from the show “indefinitely.””
“The decision shocked and impressed progressives accustomed to networks moving slow and hesitant when faced with such nerve-wracking and profit-endangering controversies. There was no waffling amid water-testing statements like with Food Network and Paula Dean, or MSNBC with Martin Bashir or Alec Baldwin. Just boom – you’re gone.” (James Hibbard, Entertainment Weekly, Dec 19, 2013, http://insidetv.ew.com/2013/12/19/duck-dynasty-pop-culture-war/)
Robertson also made a few comments about his experience growing up in the South with African-American people:
Phil On Growing Up in Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Louisiana
“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.”(http://www.gq.com/entertainment/television/201401/duck-dynasty-phil-robertson#ixzz2ofyAKhFG)
Which lead to this from Jesse Jackson:
“These statements uttered by Robertson are more offensive than the bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama, more than 59 years ago,” Jackson said in a statement obtained by ABC News.
“At least the bus driver, who ordered Rosa Parks to surrender her seat to a white person, was following state law. Robertson’s statements were uttered freely and openly without cover of the law, within a context of what he seemed to believe was ‘white privilege.”
Now, Robertson has thousands of supporters, even in the form of Fox News, Sarah Palin, and other conservative commentators. And it appears that A&E is even backtracking on its suspension. The Cracker Barrel Restaurants initially pulled Duck Dynasty merchandise from its stores, but returned it due to customer demand.
A+E has seen about a 22% drop in viewers since the flap and Robertson appears in the 9 out 10 episodes already shot and scheduled to be aired starting on January 15. (Adweek) So what kind of a suspension is that?
Clearly, the Robertsons don’t need A+E as much as A+E needs them.
So, back to the original question. Is Free Speech dead? Or is this just another instances of political correctness gone amuck?