With his characteristic bluntness, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty warned the rest of us against being “deceived” by those who would have us think that “adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers” will “inherit the kingdom of God.”
Homosexual activist groups have pounced upon Robertson for his “vile” comments and A & E suspended him “indefinitely.” Meanwhile, predictably, high profile Republican figures have sprung to his defense. Palin wrote on her Facebook page: “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.”
Let’s think clearly and speak truthfully.
First, if the wildly improbable occurs and A & E decides to drop Robertson and/or his program, then the owners of the network would be exercising their right to free speech. Robertson’s right to free speech no more requires that his employers keep him employed than Martin Bashir’s right to free speech required that his employer, MSNBC, keep him employed.
The right to free speech is nothing more or less than an obligation on the part of the government to refrain from punishing individuals for their speech. In other words, free speech is speech that does not come at the cost of a government-imposed penalty.
No one, as far as I have been able to determine, is trying to convince the government to penalize Robertson or anyone else for his speech. In fact, his critics are exercising their free speech rights.
Second, this being said, that some are “offended” by the speech of others is to be expected in a free association of self-governing actors. It is precisely because of the heterogeneity of views that are sure to proliferate in such an association that a right to free speech exists in the first place. But not only is it expected that, say, the spokespersons for GLAAD would find Robertson’s remarks “vile;” it is also utterly irrelevant that they do so.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.