Free speech: Phil Robertson vs Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris Perry

Free speech prevents governments from censuring their citizens for words they say or write. Modern jargon has broadened it to mean freedom from any consequences whatsoever for spoken or written words. However, in our jaded, cynical world, the application of this concept is often first filtered through a partisan lens.

Recently Phil Robertson, one of the stars of a reality show on A&E, said some things in a magazine interview that offended people. A&E decide to suspend him (but have since reversed). The public discourse, specifically the socially conservative quadrant, erupted, and a new front in the culture wars was launched. Some argued that what Robertson said wasn’t offensive, so his suspension was unwarranted.

Regardless of my personal opinion, this is at least a defensible position. A person may or may not find something offensive, regardless of the objective fact that it offended others, and so not see the need for disciplinary action. Many instead invoked Robertson’s free speech rights. This is an untenable position from any angle. No one was sanctioned by the government, so no rights were violated. However, A&E also has free speech rights, employer rights, and contract rights, which precious few conservatives stood up for at the time.

Piers Morgan wants to limit the First Amendment

Let’s just get this out of the way. The First Amendment protects popular and unpopular speech from government regulation. This recognized and protected fundamental civil liberty should be celebrated.

But the right to free speech is also a two-way street. In short, you have the right to express an opinion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free from criticism or derision from those who disagree.

A&E is a private company and can do what it wants, provided it’s within the terms of contractual agreements, just as MSNBC seemingly forced out Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir. With that said, if you don’t agree with its decision to suspend Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty, you don’t have to watch the network or buy from its advertisers. Indeed, the free market is a great thing.

Enter Piers Morgan.

The CNN talk host weighed in on the controversy on Thursday with this tweet:

Now it’s a free speech issue.

Understanding the difference between the Free Market and Free Speech

Phil Robertson

By now, even people who don’t watch Duck Dynasty know who Phil Robertson is. The patriarch of the Duck Commander family recently got himself into a bit of controversy regarding an interview he gave to GQ regarding homosexuality. Now, supporters of Robertson are yelling about free speech after A&E decided to put Robertson on hiatus.

“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,” told Drew Magary, the reporter conducting the interview. “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.”

Now, I’m not going to get into the meat of what Robertson said. That’s a matter of theology, and I’m hardly worthy of debating that against a man who has most definitely read the Bible more than me.

However, what I do want to do is address the people screaming about Robertson’s First Amendment rights.

You see, Robertson’s rights haven’t been violated. A&E, a television network, opted to not air more of Robertson as a means of protecting their profit margin, but Robertson still has the right to say whatever he wants.

What this is really about is a case of the free market, something most conservatives – the group most supportive of Robertson and his comments – say they agree with. A television network is either a corporation or part of a corporation. That means they need to make moves to protect their profit margin. If they’re worried that a personalities comments will alienate a significant portion of their viewership, then they’re going to make moves to prevent that.

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