A&E Suspension of Duck Dynasty Star Not a First Amendment Free Speech Violation

Phil Robertson | Photo: JEFF REIDEL/GQ
After making egregiously anti-gay and racist remarks in an interview with GQ Magazine that went live yesterday, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson faced a massive public backlash across social and mainstream media. As of late last evening, A&E officially suspended Robertson indefinitely from his popular reality show. In a statement to press, A&E said:

“We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty,” A&E said in a statement. “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.”

Surprisingly missing from A&E’s statement are any remarks regarding Robertson’s Jim Crow-era remarks claiming African Americans never experienced discrimination. In the GQ interview Robertson said:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” 

This isn’t the first time A&E has taken action against a popular reality star on their network. In 2007 A&E suspended production of  “Dog the Bounty Hunter” due to racial remarks made by the show’s namesake.
One common mistake many who have stepped forward to defend Robertson have made is claiming A&E “violated Robertson’s First Amendment rights.” Contrary to popular opinion, First Amendment rights only apply so far as the government is concerned; private enterprise is not subject to the amendment. 
Sarah Palin's Duck Dynasty Facebook Post

One of the many offenders misunderstanding how the First Amendment works is none other than Sarah Palin. On her Facebook page yesterday she decried A&E saying, “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.” Her opinion on this particular issue – while nothing that comes out of her mouth at this point should be – is surprising since Palin and other Tea Party conservatives traditionally argue that businesses should be able to make their own decisions free of consequence or government intervention. In this case, A&E as a private business exercised their legal right to protect their monetary product. Palin’s hypocrisy on the issue is simultaneously hilarious as well as telling of her flip-flop attitudes on business rights.

Similarly misconstruing the First Amendment, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal expressed support for Robertson while calling out A&E for “violating” his First Amendment freedoms:

“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. I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV,” Jindal said in a statement. “In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”

Similarly, right wing media sounded a battle cry yesterday making similar claims. Mark Levin was quoted by Breitbart saying, “It’s not even something I want to spend a lot of time on other than the First Amendment concerns that I have here and they are concerns that I have.” Acknowledging the suspension had nothing to do with the government in his next sentence, Levin still pushed forward with the flawed argument. “Oh, I know – it’s not the government cutting him off. But I’m in the free speech business. And again other than the crude manner in which he described this particular sexual preference, and again it wasn’t X-rated. It certainly was not. I really don’t know why he was fired or suspended, but the latest report was fired other than an organized backlash and I’m sick of these organized backlashes. I’m tired of them.” Does being tired of a private company running their business in the free market make the First Amendment violation argument any stronger? No – and if anything, it weakens it.
Here’s the deal folks: you are free to say whatever you like and believe whatever you want without fear of the government censoring you or your beliefs. That’s the extent of what the First Amendment has to say about your freedom of speech and religion. That does not protect you from the consequences of that speech or the consequences of publicizing your religion in a national magazine. The First Amendment does not protect you from being suspended or fired by your employer. If it did, you’d never read stories of people being fired for social media postings and behavior that does not represent their company. 
The fact of the matter is that A&E is a business operating in the free market and (as any Tea Party conservative will tell you when arguing about other businesses that share their beliefs) have free reign to hire and fire people as they see fit. Do you really want the government telling companies how they should run their businesses in this aspect? Or should the First Amendment only be applied to those businesses that aren’t supporters of the Tea Party? 
Think about that.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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