NAPIER: Ducking the real issues

A&E misfires in aiming at the First Amendment

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Feathers have flown in every direction over the announcement by A&E of its suspension of Phil Robertson from the “Duck Dynasty” TV show for daring to express an opinion of his own. Those following this story have landed in of one of four main camps, but only one camp really understands the import of what is happening.

The first group is aligned with A&E because they disagree with Mr. Robertson’s comments and think he should be punished for expressing such ideas. The second group agrees with Mr. Robertson and thinks he has the right to speak his mind without retribution from A&E or anyone else in the cultural elite. The third group of mostly commercial interests, such as Cracker Barrel, will bob and weave based on public reaction and may get things partly right.

The last group is the one that understands what the real issue is. They may not necessarily agree with Mr. Robertson and may even be adamantly opposed to his views, but they seem to understand what is really at stake here: the right to First Amendment protection.

The determination of whether one ought to be protected by the First Amendment — whether it is freedom of the press, freedom of speech or even freedom of religion — does not rest on whether we or the government agree with the underlying substance of the statement or not, nor where the prevailing public opinion winds are blowing.

By its very nature and in view of the Framers’ intent, the First Amendment was established to do just the opposite: protect all speech, popular and unpopular, benign or provocative.

Certainly, there are some outer limits to these protections in keeping with the notion of an ordered society, but those limits are far beyond the battleground of this current debate. The Supreme Court has repeatedly protected the free exchange of ideas with the understanding that the appropriate response to ideas we find appalling or offensive is not censorship, but more speech. Encouraging dialogues rather than monologues establishes the most fertile environment for allowing the best ideas to win.

Censorship is not the answer. To attempt to make controversy magically disappear simply by removing dissent is like suggesting the emperor was suddenly clothed because no one was allowed to point out his nakedness.

Cracker Barrel initially responded to the uproar by pulling “Duck Dynasty” merchandise from its restaurant shops, concerned that seeing this stuff might “offend some of our guests.” However, when the company realized it offended even more customers by pulling the items, Cracker Barrel reversed course and issued this statement: “[W]e apologize for offending you. We respect all individuals’ right to express their beliefs. We certainly did not mean to have anyone think different.”

That’s good, but only half right. Respecting other people’s free-speech rights is not based on which group is the most or least offended. Those inalienable rights should be protected regardless of how we react to the message. Cracker Barrel is free to make business decisions as they so choose, but let’s not confuse fundamental freedoms with fickle market research.

Some will point out that A&E has First Amendment rights, too. The network has freedom of the press and speech rights, and it was simply exercising its own rights. This is true only in part, though.

A&E has certain rights. Aside from any contractual obligations it may have with the Robertson clan (and Federal Communications Commission limitations), it has the right to air whatever programming it wants. Had Mr. Robertson made his comments during the filming of the show, A&E presumably had the right to edit out those comments. For that matter, A&E can decide it no longer wants to air “Duck Dynasty.” That is its prerogative. A&E, as a private entity, should not — nor should ever — be forced to convey a message with which it disagrees. However, that is not what happened here.

In this situation, Mr. Robertson was speaking away from A&E’s cameras and was not subject to A&E’s long-armed control. His comments had nothing to do with the show but had everything to do with A&E bowing to the pressure of leftist censors, such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which is uncomfortable being confronted by issues that for all of history have been taken for granted: that men were meant for women and vice versa.

When the neo-orthodoxy of the powerful elite shoves aside time-honored values, they shouldn’t be shocked when people like Mr. Robertson scratch their heads and wonder why anyone would abandon the natural laws of biology to engage in conduct which still make many people cringe when they stop to consider it.

A&E is free to choose its programming, and people are free to change the channel. No more can A&E force us to watch its shows than it can force the world to agree with its values. The same goes for Mr. Robertson. Tolerance is a two-way street. The First Amendment was intended for all.

Groups like GLAAD, which were screaming for A&E to pluck Mr. Robertson from his show over his free speech should instead let comments like this go like water off a duck’s back and celebrate the fact that we still have a free America where we can agree to disagree.

Doug Napier is senior vice president for legal at the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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