Free speech: What it is — and isn’t

01/05/2014 11:36 AM

12/08/2014 5:21 PM

Fair warning: This is about the Duck Dynasty controversy. Yes, I know. I’m sick of it, too.

Still, relying upon my First Amendment right to freedom of speech, I will make a few observations about Phil Robertson, the grizzled Louisiana duck hunter turned reality TV star whose comments about black and gay people recently got him suspended — and then unsuspended — by A&E. If you find my observations disagreeable you may, relying upon your own First Amendment rights, protest to my employer. Assuming enough of you bring enough pressure, my employer may dump me. Feeling angry and betrayed, I might — here’s that First Amendment again – blast my now-former bosses for defects of character, courage or cognition.

But one thing I could not say — at least not credibly — is that they’d violated my First Amendment rights. There is nothing in the First Amendment that says a private company can’t fire you.

We’ll return to the First in a second. Right now, let me offer the promised observations about Mr. Robertson: Man really needs to wake up and smell the 21st century.

His comments, made in an interview with GQ, are almost cartoonish in their stupidity. They sound less like they were made by a backwoods ignoramus than by someone doing a takeoff on a backwoods ignoramus.

For instance, Robertson explains his aversion to homosexuality by discoursing on the comparative merits of the male anus and the vagina. For good measure, he invokes bestiality and the Bible. He also notes how black people were “singing and happy” when he was young. “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare … they were godly, they were happy, no one was singing the blues.”

Ahem.

So anyway, A&E was shocked — shocked, I say, shocked! — to learn that a self-described redneck from the Louisiana woods harbored such illiberal views. It suspended Robertson, thereby igniting a scrum of conservative pols jockeying to express newfound love for the First Amendment.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says he can “remember” when TV networks still believed in it. Sarah Palin calls free speech “an endangered species.” Mike Huckabee says, “Stand with Phil and support free speech.”

Yeah. Because freedom of speech means you can say any asinine thing you want and nobody can call you on it or punish you for it. Right?

Um … actually, no.

Free speech means you can say any asinine thing you want and the government may not call you on it or punish you for it. If the feds came after Robertson, I’d hold my nose and stand with him. But he wasn’t punished by the feds. He was punished by the free market.

The First Amendment gives each of us the right to bring whatever we wish into the marketplace of ideas — faith, gay rights, white supremacy, libertarianism, socialism, birtherism — without government interference. But if enough people don’t buy what you are selling, you don’t stay in the market very long. And if what you’re selling offends enough people, the market will show you the door.

So Robertson’s rights were not abridged because his network slapped his wrists. Those are the rules we play by. That’s how America works.

A&E, calculating that Robertson had become a liability, dropped him. His fans raised an almighty ruckus and A&E chose discretion over valor, doubtless realizing the people most likely to be offended by the man probably weren’t watching him in the first place.

Now Robertson returns — just in time for a new controversy. It seems an old video has surfaced in which he lists the qualities a man should seek in a prospective wife. She should be 15 or 16 years old, advises the duck hunter — and a good cook.

Great. So now we get to see how child marriage plays in the marketplace of ideas. God bless America.

 

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr

@LeonardPittsJr1

Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote a column on the terrorist attacks that received a huge response from readers who deluged him with more than 26,000 e-mails. It was posted on the Internet, chain-letter style. Read the column and others on the topic of September 11.

You can also read Pitts' series, What Works?, a series of columns about programs anywhere in the country that show results in improving the lives of black children.

Leonard also wrote the 2008 series I Am A Man, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Email Leonard at lpitts@MiamiHerald.com or visit his website at www.leonardpittsjr.com

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