Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s anti-gay comments spark first amendment debate

Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson has been put on hiatus with A&E due to recent controversial comments. (Credit: Phil Johnson)

Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson has been put on hiatus with A&E due to recent controversial comments. (Credit: Phil Johnson)

Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the reality show Duck Dynasty, was placed on hiatus from the program after making anti-gay comments in an interview with GQ magazine. Robertson, a citizen of Louisiana and a conservative, compared gays to sinners “akin to adulterers and swindlers,” a contributor to the Manila Bulletin wrote in “Patriarch off ‘Duck Dynasty’ after gay comments.” Duck Dynasty’s network, A&E, which has a long history of supporting LGBTQ rights, placed Robertson on hiatus after the comments were released, and booksellers have faced pressure to take Robertson’s book, Happy, Happy, Happy, off the shelves. The events have sparked a controversy about whether the reaction to Robertson’s comments is an infringement on Robertson’s First Amendment rights — his guaranteed freedom of speech. Politicians including Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have weighed in. If you are looking for a good research paper topic in political science, take a look at the way politicians, critics and fans of reality television view the First Amendment.

Robertson’s  comments

So what did Robertson actually say? The full text of the article, “What the duck?” written by Drew Magary for the January 2014 issue of GQ, features several comments by Robertson, including his complaint that A&E cuts out some of the more controversial things he says. He returns to homosexuality several times in the article, calling it a sin, and listing it alongside promiscuity and bestiality. He then paraphrases a verse from Corinthians, saying, “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.” Only a few paragraphs later, Robertson comments, “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell … whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

Robertson’s defenders cite the second statement as showing that while Robertson doesn’t condone homosexuality, he also promotes tolerance. Others, including A&E, have noted the company into which Robertson has placed members of the LGBTQ community. A&E’s move to take Robertson off the show was greeted by civil rights group GLAAD with resounding approval. In the Manila Bulletin article, GLAAD spokesman William Cruz stated, “What’s clear is that such hateful anti-gay comments are unacceptable to fans, viewers and networks alike.”

The First Amendment

Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin were among those who defended Robertson’s right to express his beliefs freely. Both took to Twitter and Facebook with comments linking Robertson’s forced hiatus from the show to a lack of respect for freedom of speech from television. “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment,” Jindal wrote, as quoted by LZ Granderson in CNN Opinion post “’Duck Dynasty’ star’s free speech rights weren’t violated.” Jindal continued, “It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”

But Granderson and others have argued that the First Amendment – which in one sentence prohibits congress from making laws respecting establishing a religion or prohibiting its practice, abridging freedom of speech or the press, or denying the right of people to assemble and petition the government – does not protect individuals from their employers. The First Amendment protects individuals for the government: Robertson will not go to jail for his comments in GQ. As Granderson said succinctly, “Robertson’s boss punished him for his remarks. The government didn’t.”

Conservative critics have complained, however, that while there are laws being made to protect groups that fit with a liberal agenda – including gay rights – those same protections are not offered to social conservatives. “The right to fire a person for violating pro-homosexual speech codes is not matched by the freedom on the other side,” Mark Horne wrote in “Why the firing of Phil Robertson is a First-Amendment issue (though it shouldn’t be)” in the Political Outcast blog. Thus the decision of A&E to put Robertson on hiatus was not itself a First Amendment issue – but it highlights other areas where First Amendment rights are debated.

How do you think the First Amendment applies to Robertson? Tell us in the comments. 

For more on U.S. Constitutional history and issues, visit Questia.

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