What does free speech actually mean?

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Is free speech just about the law or does it also need to protect people from social pressure?

Until this week I was – along with just about everybody else in the UK – blissfully unaware of the existence of Duck Dynasty. It’s a reality TV show about a clan that made its millions selling accessories for duck hunters.

What has brought this program from the obscurity of American Cable TV are some unfortunate remarks by the patriarch of the family. Not only did he compare Shintoism to Fascism and imply that Jim Crow wasn’t all that bad. He also said this:

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. … 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 … 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?”

And even more weirdly this:

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.

In the context of an America in which everything must apparently become a partisan issue: left and right have come to different views. For example, Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote on Facebook:

The reason that so many Americans love Duck Dynasty is because it represents the America usually ignored or mocked by liberal elites: a family that loves and cares for each other, believes in God, and speaks openly about their faith.

If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson. Phil expressed his personal views and his own religious faith; for that, he was suspended from his job. In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him–but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree.

Liberals have responded by pointing out that Mr Robertson’s first amendment rights have not actually been breached. The liberal website Think Progress wrote that:

These outraged messages have largely defended Robertson’s anti-gay comments as an expression of his religious beliefs without acknowledging his remarks that African Americans were better off without full civil rights. On that point, they have been notably silent. Moreover, nothing about this situation has anything to do with “free speech.”

Robertson is a free man. He has not been arrested for his beliefs. He could continue to say whatever he’d like and, given the current media frenzy, it would probably be quickly published in many other places. Robertson could even take to his own website and publish whatever he wants to say, and individuals could share it through social media the world over. His freedom of speech has been in no way encumbered.

A&E, as a company, enjoys constitutional protections as well, and is under no obligation to provide a platform for messages it disagrees with. The network’s statement suspending Robertson from filming was telling in this regard: “His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” A&E is not Robertson’s employer, lest it be forgotten that the show Duck Dynasty is about his actual business, Duck Commander, which produces duck calls and other related (and not-so-related) products.

What actually is taking place is that conservatives are taking umbrage because a fellow conservative’s beliefs are being publicly criticized. This happens all the time. When Chick-fil-A head Dan Cathy, whose company gives millions of dollars annually to anti-gay groups, said that homosexuality is “twisted up kind of stuff” that is “inviting God’s judgment,” LGBT groups called for awareness-raising and boycotts while conservatives rushed to show their “appreciation.” The exact opposite happened when companies like Starbucks and General Mills announced their support for marriage equality: LGBT groups offered praise, while anti-gay groups vowed to dump their products.

Surprisingly I actually have some sympathy for the right-wing perspective on this one. No less a liberal luminary than J.S Mill worried not only about formal censorship but also the “despotism of custom.” He worried that social pressures could silence dissenting opinions in the same way as laws. That might not concern us unduly when it’s the bigoted ramblings of Mr Robertson being silenced. However, decades back someone expressing the opposite opinions would have been driven out of public life. Society can be in error and the pressure it exerts can be a problem. However, we must also remember that freedom of speech covers the freedom to criticise and the freedom of association cover the freedom to disassociate from someone we find disagreeable.

So in A&E’s position would I have done? I am won over by Andrew Sullivan’s position that:

Robertson is a character in a reality show. He’s not a spokesman for A&E any more than some soul-sucking social x-ray from the Real Housewives series is a spokeswoman for Bravo. Is he being fired for being out of character? Nah. He’s being fired for staying in character – a character A&E have nurtured and promoted and benefited from. Turning around and demanding a Duck Dynasty star suddenly become the equivalent of a Rachel Maddow guest is preposterous and unfair.

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2 thoughts on “What does free speech actually mean?

  1. Pingback: … the A & E Network has a Helluva Problem on Its Hands … « Lake Erie Conservative

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