Defining free speech

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board December 20, 2013 09:32 am

We re-read the Bill of Rights and it turns out we remembered the text correctly: There’s nothing in there about the freedom to star in a reality show on cable TV.

We felt compelled to brush up on those first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution after reading about the plight of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Louisiana family around which the A&E series “Duck Dynasty” revolves.

The dynasty in this case is the Robertson family’s business, which makes duck calls and other products for waterfowl hunters.

Until recently, “Duck Dynasty” had been quite popular but not particularly controversial.

That changed when GQ magazine released excerpts of its interview with Phil Robertson in which he said he believes homosexuality is sinful.

He expressed this opinion in quite explicit terms.

A&E responded by suspending Robertson from “Duck Dynasty.”

Both his published comments and his subsequent suspension have spawned a blizzard of comments in both the traditional and social media.

Predictably, some people have branded Robertson as a First Amendment martyr and hailed his punishment as an erosion of free speech.

We understand Robertson’s fans are disappointed, but we don’t see that this has anything to do with the First Amendment.

That noble treatise, you’ll recall, prohibits Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press....”

It doesn’t say that private companies can’t punish employees who say things that some people consider offensive.

The First Amendment guarantees Robertson the right to express his opinions, and it guarantees GQ the right to publish those opinions.

Both those things happened.

But the First Amendment does not guarantee, and never has guaranteed, that there will be no ramifications from expressing an opinion.

That said, although A&E didn’t violate Robertson’s constitutional rights by suspending him, we don’t agree with the decision.

We understand the network’s motivation, of course.

No business that relies on a loyal viewership wants to risk alienating a bunch of potential customers. Robertson’s comments could have that effect.

But by punishing him, A&E has angered many of Robertson’s supporters who share his religious convictions and his beliefs about homosexuality.

It appears as though A&E might have overreacted to the backlash against Robertson’s comments. It seems that a majority of “Duck Dynasty” viewers are backing Robertson, and that most of the people who are pleased with his punishment don’t watch the show anyway.

It might well be that companies such as A&E would be wise to let the public, through their TV remote controls, decide who they want to watch during their leisure time. Americans, we’ve noticed, like to make up their own minds on stuff like that.