Words Have Consequences: Interviews, Social Media and the First Amendment

Editor’s Note:  This is probably the most important post I have written in the nearly three years of  have been running this blog.  It is not about the “Duck Dynasty” fracas, but the bigger picture our first amendment rights.  While reading, please keep in mind that this is not just about one interview or one person, but about our nation and our society as a whole.  Thank you.

the-power-of-words

As many people are now aware, an interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, was published last week in the magazine GQ. Almost as soon as the interview was published, it spawned controversy.  Phil Robertson was quoted degrading gays, blacks, and the President, to name a few.  However, his most heinous remarks were reserved for gays and lesbians, in which he compares homosexuality to bestiality:

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“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,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “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.”

On Wednesday, December 18, A&E Network boss Nancy Dubuc announced that Phil Robertson was being placed on an indefinite suspension.  Her reason for taking such action was based on the company’s demographic and that many of her gay and lesbian employees were extremely offended by the remarks made by Mr. Robertson.  When word reached the public that Robertson was suspended from the show, fans of Duck Dynasty began to call his suspension censorship and an infringement on his First Amendment rights.   Facebook pages began to spring-up calling for a boycott of A&E.  Twitter was equally active, with many people expressing their dislike for the decision to suspend the star.  Memes have sprung-up all over the social media universe calling Phil Robertson a hero, “Family Strong for Phil,” “Support Phil,” and “Keep Calm and Stand with Phil.”  These are just a few of the memes that are circulating.

It is difficult to gauge just who is for or against, but many of them are the same people who believe the same things which Mr. Robertson believes.  The argument being made is that Phil Robertson was just expressing his opinion and is now being persecuted for his beliefs.  Another argument being made is that GQ, the publisher of the interview, did a poor job editing the article to purposefully make Mr. Robertson look bad.  Finally, fault is being placed at A&E’s feet, the theory being; they knew what his beliefs were and they still aired the show to begin with.  The network executives should not be shocked by what was said.

Despite what many want to believe, this is not about gay bashing and race baiting.  This is about words; how we use them, taking responsibility for the words one uses, and a double standard which exists in this country when it comes to the freedom of speech.

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the citizens of this nation the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Phil Robertson has every right to comment and believe what he wants.  He exercised that right in the interview he gave to GQ. Mr. Robertson was not arrested by the local police.  He was not taken into custody by the FBI.  He and his family, can and have, issued statements reaffirming their beliefs.  If Mr. Robertson was being persecuted for his comments, he would not be able to make follow-up statements.  On the flip side, A&E being a private company, has every right to suspend Mr. Robertson for his words.  Imagine going into your bosses office and yelling at him or her and telling your boss he or she is going to hell for one reason or another.  Doing so would almost guarantee you would no longer be employed.

But, here is the bigger picture:  Whenever someone chooses to make inflammatory remarks, that person must be prepared to handle the consequences of doing so.  Yes, we have been given the freedom of speech in this nation, it is what makes us unique among all nations in the world and differentiates us from Russia, North Korea, and Iran, to name a few.  But, with that right comes a responsibility.  We cannot continue to use words which cause harm to others without recognizing that those words, that those rights, come with a price.  It does not matter if the person is Phil Robertson or President Obama or Madonna or Sarah Palin.  Every single person who lives in this nation has the moral responsibility to own up to what he or she says.

Social media has made it much easier to say what one thinks and believes.  It has allowed us to exercise our freedom of speech more than ever before.  Facebook and Twitter offer an outlet for people to post on subjects they care deeply and passionately about.  These networks are a great thing.  It is encouraging to see so many people stand-up for their freedoms.  However, there comes a moment when we become so blinded by our beliefs we are unable to see the larger picture and what it all means.  Today, we are either in one camp or another camp, and there is no meeting in between.  That is the problem with social media.  Those people who are pro one side or con another side, never attempt to look at what the other side is saying.  Social media has made it easy to just delete or de-friend whenever one sees something not to their liking.  There are no ramifications.  There is no friendly discourse.  We no longer have to be responsible for the words we use.

In the past year, there have been numerous occasions in which a celebrity has said something which one group or another has found insensitive.  Paula Deen , in a closed deposition, admitted she had used racial slurs 20 years ago.  Immediately, she lost her television show, her sponsorship’s, her line of cookware and cookbooks and her reputation.  She lost all of that because of something she said behind closed doors, to her husband, 20 years ago.  Alec Baldwin was recently fired from MSNBC for yelling epithets at a cameraman and calling him derogatory names.  He had been in trouble before when he ranted on Twitter  and used anti-gay slurs to refer to a reporter.   Just yesterday, the head of Public Relations for IAC, a major internet company, was fired for Tweeting a very racist remark on her way to Africa.  All of these individuals had to take responsibility for their words.  Why is Mr. Robertson any different?  Why should he be any different from Paula Deen, or Alec Baldwin or the PR Executive?  The argument is this:  Mr. Robertson was just expressing his Christian beliefs and is now being punished for them.

Mr. Robertson is not being punished for his beliefs.  He is being punished for using vulgar and defaming words towards a group of people.  It would have been just as easy for him to say he believes gays are sinners and leave it alone.  Instead, he went  into explicit detail about why he thinks gays and lesbians are sinners. He also made derogatory statements about African-Americans and the pre-civil rights era  South.  Paula Deen used the same explanation as Robertson used; she grew-up in the south in a time when it was acceptable to use those slurs.  Why is one being hailed as a hero and the other a villain?

One cannot apply the First Amendment to one case and not to another.  We must all be treated fairly under our Constitution, regardless of one’s beliefs.  If that means a popular television star is fired or a spokesperson is dropped or a sports figure loses an endorsement, those are the ramifications of living in our free society.  That is the responsibility of living in this nation.  We must remember that the words we use makes a difference and those words have consequences.

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