The free speech conundrum

As I’m sure most readers know, Phil Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” has caused a lot of controversy recently because of his comments in GQ about homosexuals. This post, however, is not about the moral implications of his statement. Rather, I’d like to explore the issue surrounding free speech that his statements have brought to the public conversation.

First off, I’d like to freely admit that Phil Robinson is entitled to believe whatever he wants. And he’s absolutely within his rights to make statements about his beliefs in public. Most of the arguments I hear online contain the same basic sentiment: while most people don’t agree with Robertson’s attitude toward gay people, they believe that it was wrong for A&E to suspend him, since his speech is protected by the first amendment. This where I lose the thread.

Yes, his speech, however you want to label it, is protected by the first amendment. But isn’t A&E also entitled to free speech? There’s a certain level of hypocrisy involved in the argument that Robertson’s supporters are using against A&E. For some reason, it’s fine for Phil to say whatever he wants, but if A&E disagrees with that speech, they’re being intolerant. And this is where the breakdown occurs: the first amendment is NOT a right to tolerance, and it does NOT state or imply that all ideas are equally valid.

Just because you’re entitled to say whatever you want doesn’t mean that everyone is somehow obligated to support what you say. You have the right to say it, and that’s it. There’s this ridiculous conflation that somehow freedom of speech means that all ideas are created equally, and that therefore all ideas are equally valid.

They are not, sorry.

You’re free to believe whatever you want–and so is everyone else. For example, they’re free to not believe you and what you believe. And that’s fine. That isn’t intolerance or discrimination–that’s someone exercising the same right that you’re using. Plain and simple. In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with A&E suspending Phil Robertson. They’re in no way legally obligated to support what he says. They in no way impeded his right to say what he believes. They in no way impeded his first amendment right to think and say whatever he wants in public.

Just because you have the right to say whatever you want or feel doesn’t mean that everyone else has to like, conform to, acknowledge, accept, or condone what you say or feel.




8 thoughts on “The free speech conundrum

  1. Controversy surrounding free speech is certainly complex, but I have to respectfully disagree. You’re right that Phil Robertson is entitled to believe what he wants and make statements about his faith, and you’re right that A & E is also entitled to free speech. But the hypocrisy is on the side of A & E, not Robertson’s supporters- as if we don’t have the right to react.

    Phil Robertson was interviewed and asked about his beliefs, and he expressed them honestly and without malice or hate. What exactly did he say that was offensive? Firstly he said, “Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong… Sin becomes fine.” Ok, I don’t see anything wrong so far. Christians do believe that unbelievers believe that sin is fine. Unbelievers may find it offensive that anyone believes that, but it’s a concept understood and accepted by Christians. Next the reporter asked, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Now this is a loaded question, and if there’s any lack of judgment, it’s on the part of GQ for asking this question and publishing the answer. In my opinion, no Christian should back away from this question or be ashamed of explaining what we believe (there may be certain settings where it’s not helpful for Christians to express their beliefs, but I don’t think this was one of them). Robertson said, “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.”

    So the homosexual community took issue with Robertson calling homosexuality sin and equating it with other sinful behaviors such as adultery, idolatry, drunkenness, slandering and swindling, and saying that those who do these things won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Personally, I don’t think this comment would have gotten so much attention if the homosexual community and the general public understood them and weren’t so easily offended. I think the reason why people are offended is because they think Robertson was saying that they’re going to hell, but that’s not what Robertson said, and that’s not what 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 means. Firstly, this passage identifies a number of sinful behaviors, including homosexuality. It also identifies adultery, slander and drunkenness as sin. I’m guessing there’s more people getting drunk and committing adultery and slander in this country than there are those practicing homosexuality, so it’s interesting that the 3% of Americans who are homosexual are outraged, while those who are committing adultery and getting drunk weren’t offended. Why is it that homosexuals are outraged when their behavior is publicly called sinful, but those who commit other sinful acts seem to accept it without getting offended? I think it’s clear that it’s the homosexual community that is intolerant, bigoted and hateful. They’re the ones who reacted inappropriately. They took offense and attacked- not just Robertson- but all Christians who believe that the Bible is the word of God. They attacked Christianity by demanding retribution, forcing A&E capitulate by suspending Robertson. So what was the Christian community to do? Turn the cheek? Do nothing? Pretend we’re just as shocked and outraged as the homosexual community? I think it was totally appropriate for Christians to come to Robertson’s defense; that was the right thing to do. So why do you think it’s hypocritical for Christians to support a fellow brother in Christ who spoke God’s word in love? There’s nothing hypocritical about Christians supporting a fellow believer. Christians were right to call out A&E for attacking our beliefs. A&E knew what they were getting when they put Duck Dynasty on the air. A&E tried to make the cast of Duck Dynasty tone down their religious beliefs by not saying grace and not mentioning Jesus, but the cast explained that they weren’t going to compromise on their beliefs, and they didn’t. A&E knew what they were getting, so they’re the hypocrites for throwing Phil Robertson under the bus and not defending his beliefs. A&E was capitalizing on the Robertson’s popularity and cashing in on their success. They could have told the haters that, while they don’t agree with Phil’s comments, he has the right to express his religious beliefs. But they decided to throw him under the bus, so it’s no surprise that Christians rushed to his defense.

    If A&E wants to play politics, then Duck Dynasty should go elsewhere. They don’t need the money, and they don’t need to apologize for their beliefs. Sure, A&E can say whatever they want, but the fans and supporters of Duck Dynasty have every right to voice their opinion take their support elsewhere. A&E isn’t entitled to any Christian support. If they don’t want an explicitly Christian show, then we can go elsewhere. Those are the consequences. But the fact is that A&E was intolerant of Robertson expressing his religious beliefs by condemning and suspending him. Sure, they have the right to do so, but it’s not hypocritical for Christian’s to react the way they have. A&E should suffer the consequences for their poor decision.

    You’re right that the first amendment is NOT a right to tolerance, and you’re right that it does NOT state or imply that all ideas are equally valid. But this works both ways. Christians don’t have to tolerate sin or capitulate to political correctness. The homosexual community doesn’t have to tolerate Robertson’s remarks. A&E doesn’t have to tolerate the homosexual community’s intolerance. Christians don’t have to tolerate the intolerance expressed by the homosexual community and A&E. Homosexuals are free to believe whatever they want, but so do Robertson and other Christians. Christians aren’t obligated to believe what homosexuals believe.

    But the greater issue is that it’s the homosexual community who demands tolerance. That’s the hypocrisy. Shouldn’t we be lecturing them by explaining that the first amendment isn’t a right to tolerance? If they truly believe in tolerance, shouldn’t they practice tolerance by allowing Christians to express their religious beliefs without resorting to hatred, intolerance and bigotry?

    If anything, it’s Robertson and practicing Christians who are the most tolerant and loving. We accept all sinners without judgment, but it’s the sin that we condemn. Love the sinner, but hate the sin. And that’s what Robertson was expressing. In fact, in their official response, the Robertson family said, “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?”

    When Robertson was quoting from 1 Corinthians 6, it’s important to realize that we’re all sinners in need of a savior, and that’s what people are missing. Any of us could be caught in any of the sins he mentioned, but if anyone wants to go to heaven, we need to repent of our sin and allow Jesus Christ to pay the penalty. Once Christ pays the penalty we deserved, then we will inherit the kingdom of God, no matter what our vices are.

    A&E did impede Robertson’s first amendment right by suspending him. They’re basically telling him and all Christians to keep their mouths shut about homosexuality. That’s dangerous, and Christians have every right to react as they have. We love homosexuals, but hate all sin.

    1. I would respectfully disagree that AE impeded his right in any way. He’s still free to say whatever he wants. He’s free to print it, he’s free to buy cable access time and preach it, he’s free to start a website and espouse it, he’s free to give more interviews, and he’s certainly free to take his ideology to another network. AE as a private entity is not in any way legally or ethically obligated to provide him any sort of a soapbox or platform. Robertson has a contract with the network, just like any employer and employee. If AE does not feel like Robertson is representing them the way they desire, they’re free to discipline, suspend, or terminate him. Especially since he cashed all of their checks.

      Similarly, if I comport myself in a way that my nursing school sees as unbecoming of a healthcare professional, they’re free to boot me out of there (a fact that they remind all students of annually). It’s the same case with AE. If they feel like he’s going to harm the network in any sort of way, they have a right to preserve themselves. Even if they canceled the show tomorrow, the family is free to take the show to a network that DOES support their views and ideas.

      I tried to avoid making any statement about Robertson’s personal beliefs because honestly I don’t really care what he believes. It doesn’t affect me and my rights, and it doesn’t really matter in the context of the free speech argument. You could swap his comments on gays with comments about kicking puppies or condoning child abuse or advocating for sexism or slavery or whatever. The subject matter isn’t as important as the idea that no matter what Robertson says, nobody is in any way legally or ethically obligated to like it, support, condone it, or even acknowledge it. And if you represent another person, people, or entity, you should probably think before you speak or make sure that you’re representing the right people.

      1. I don’t disagree with most of your comments, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that it works both ways. What I disagree with is how it’s only the rights and freedoms of AE and the LGTB crowd that matters, as if they’re the victims. But what about the rights of Duck Dynasty, Phil Robertson, and all Christians? Do we have rights too?

        AE did impede Robertson’s rights by punishing him, and this is an attempt at censorship.

        AE and LGTB are free to say whatever they want. They’re free to print it, buy cable access time to preach it, start a website and espouse it, give more interviews, etc. But the Duck Dynasty clan and their fans and supporters are not in any way legally or ethically obligated to provide them any sort of soapbox or platform for their propaganda. If AE doesn’t like Robertson’s comments, they’re free to suspend him as they did. But the Duck Dynasty clan, their fans and supporters are free to react and discipline AE for attempting to violate their freedoms, and for espousing inappropriate propaganda.

        AE thinks they can get away with punishing a Christian for expressing their religious beliefs. Fine. Christians can punish AE for making stupid comments and punishing Robertson. AE has to represent the Duck Dynasty clan in a way they desire, or they can take their show elsewhere if they feel their contract was violated. If AE is going to harm Duck Dynasty in any way, they have a right to preserve themselves.

        This is a two-way street, and everyone needs to learn how to get along, be respectful, and tolerate each other without being so easily offended. Instead of reacting the way they did, AE and the LGTB should have attempted to have a respectful dialogue, and had they done that I think the issues could have been resolved. But instead of behaving like adults, AE and the LGTB seek to demonize Christians, and that’s wrong.

        This reminds me of the Chick-Fil-A fiasco, and it was Dan Cathy and Chick-Fil-A who respectfully reached out to the LGTB crowd to resolve the issues.

      2. Of course Christians have the same rights. I’d disagree that this is censorship, though. Private individuals and entities have a right to support or not support whatever they want. The only way this could possibly be construed as censorship would be if somehow AE tried to sue Robertson to prevent him from speaking. You mentioned that AE wanted the family to tone down some of their religiosity in the show. Again, clearly not censorship because the Robertsons agreed to that, and they happily cashed the paycheck.

        Of course the Christian demographic has rights in this instance. But those rights don’t supersede those of AE, the LGTB community, or anyone else. And the Christian right to believe whatever they want hasn’t been impeded.

        The censorship argument doesn’t hold water for me because, as I mentioned before, Phil is in no way impeded in believing and saying whatever he wants, whenever he wants, on whatever media he wants. Do I as a private employer have to employ someone active in the KKK just because of the first amendment? No, of course not. And if I refused to hire them or fired them it wouldn’t even be remotely close to censorship. If the government tried to define what Robertson could and couldn’t say, that would be censorship. If AE tried to jail Phil for his statements, that would be censorship. In other words, censorship in a legal sense only matters in a public context, not in a private one. Private like the contract they have with the network, and private like the network itself. If AE was a publicly owned station, censorship might be a legitimate claim. But just like a privately owned newspaper has a right to print whatever it wants, as a private network AE has the right to broadcast whatever it wants within it’s legal constraints.

        I’d agree that people should work to be open minded and tolerant, but up to a point. I don’t have to comprise my principles for the sake of maintaining or upholding anyone else’s . And vice versa. That doesn’t mean I would seek punitive measures against someone–I’m as free to disassociate myself from someone as I am free to associate myself with them.

        There are networks lined up around the block waiting to snatch up the show because they share similar values as the Robertsons. There’s no danger of his expression being stymied or silenced.

      3. I’m glad you agree that Christians have the same rights, but I can’t follow your argument on how it’s not censorship when AE is punishing Robertson by suspending him for expressing his opinion in an appropriate manner. The intent of AE is to punish, and then silence him and others from stepping out of line. You described one specific form of censorship, but there are many ways of doing this, and the action they took certainly qualifies. It sounds like you think censorship can only occur if the government killed him or if AE sentenced him to a dungeon somewhere; that’s the only way to truly silence someone and prevent them from saying whatever they want, whenever they want, on whatever media they want. Censorship can take many forms, and one way is through shame, public humiliation and condemnation. And it takes someone of strong moral character to refuse to be silenced.

        It sounds like you’re opposed to censorship, yet because you agree with AE and the action they took, you are reluctant to acknowledge that this is censorship, even though it clearly is. They’re telling Duck Dynasty to shut up about their religious beliefs, while at the same time profiting off of them. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. They’re not going to shut up, and if AE doesn’t like it, Duck Dynasty can go somewhere else that welcomes wholesome family entertainment with a positive message, good values, character, integrity, boldness, and a family that’s unashamed of their faith.

        You’d think that a private company wouldn’t be forced to hire someone active in the KKK, but the government does indeed force private companies to hire people they are diametrically opposed to. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is meant to do just that. So if government gets their way, private companies would be forced to hire someone actively working in the KKK, so to speak. And this is why it’s important to oppose such government sanctions.

      4. Well, I never said AE wasn’t being hypocritical. I merely said that what they were doing wasn’t censorship in the legal definition, which quite frankly is all I’m concerned about. If we all recognized everyone’s own personal and subjective definition of censorship, quite frankly nothing would probably get done.

        With regards to my KKK example, the point I was trying to make was that firing said person wouldn’t be considered censorship in a court of law. Obviously there are other legal precedents, but even then it gets a little murky. If you happen to live in an at will state, your employer can pretty much fire you for whatever reason he or she deems fit, which I view as a loophole to discrimination laws.

        I do happen to agree with AE. And I do happen to be against censorship. But again, publicly disagreeing with someone is not a form of censorship. Your definition of censorship makes it sound as if when anyone publicly disagrees with someone they’re really censoring them in some fashion. In order to avoid the kind of loose and ambiguous censorship you’re talking about, everyone would have to essentially keep their mouth shut around anyone they ever disagreed with, which quite frankly sounds less in the spirit of the first amendment than what AE did.

        In a civil society, we cannot honor everyone’s subjective and personal opinion. I’m sorry, but it’s just not feasible or ethical. We can’t legislate tolerance. Legislating tolerance is essentially dictatorship or totalitarian rule. Forcing AE to continue employing someone they morally or ethically oppose or someone who is hurting the network is tantamount to legislating someone’s personal opinion.

        At the same time, everyone has a right to their opinions and feelings. Nobody can take those away from you. Barring sedition or libel, nobody can take away your rights to express what you feel, think, or value. That is the only protection afforded to us by the constitution. Phil and his family can continue to believe and say whatever they want, and they’re free to take their message to whoever they want however they chose to do so.

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