I’ve hesitated this week to blog about a big free speech debate that’s raging in America, because in the big, global picture, where gays in Uganda risk life in jail and activists in Syria simply disappear, it might seem embarrassingly petty. But it is about free speech, something we Americans still tangle with.
“Duck Dynasty” is an American reality television series revolving around the lives of the Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana, headed by Phil Robertson, 67, whose claim to fame–and fortune—are the duck calls he manufactures, tools hunters use to lure ducks within firing range.
In a recent interview for a magazine, Robertson called homosexuality a sin and compared gays to terrorists. He also made some disparaging remarks about blacks in the South before Civil Rights, implying that life was just fine for African Americans under segregation.
As a result, the TV network that airs the show suspended Phil indefinitely.
“His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely,” A&E statement to Variety Magazine.
His family admits his remarks were “coarse,” but are based on his evangelical Christian values, and they say they won’t continue the show without him.
The Human Rights Campaign and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent a joint letter to the president of A&E, saying, “These remarks go beyond being outlandishly inaccurate and offensive. They are dangerous and revisionist, appealing to those in our society who wish to repeat patterns of discrimination,” and calling for apologies from Robertson.
But some prominent political figures have jumped to his defense, arguing for his right to free speech—among them, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and possible candidate for 2016 presidential elections.
“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,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another possible 2016 White House candidate, said, “Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with.”
And even comedian Jon Stewart, known for testing the limits on the other side of the political spectrum, defends Robertson’s right to say something “ignorant” and not get kicked off television for it.
I’m going to hold back my own opinion, but I will offer a few facts and questions to consider:
- Free speech is guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution’s First Amendment. It also means that television networks are free to air what they choose. And frequently, they choose reality television, which is cheap to produce and gets big ratings.
- For decades now, TV watchers have peeked into the lives of the rich and poor: Fashion designers, beauty queens, brides-to-be, polygamists and prison guards. Nowadays, we see a lot of “rednecks,” a derisive term Robertson uses himself to describe folks who often don’t have a lot of education (although Robertson was a college football player) and earn a living with their hands. For the sake of TV ratings, the trend seems to be the weirder the better: Bounty hunters, hog trackers, exterminators and alligator wrestlers are all testing not only the limits of “free speech” but good taste as well.
- Audiences are eating it up. Duck Dynasty’s recent Christmas show earned 9 million viewers. So why are we stunned that the patriarch of a family well-paid to make outrageous, offensive, disparaging remarks insulted minority groups?
So what do you think? Should Robertson be punished for speaking his mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments, below.