A Third Perspective: The 'Duck Dynasty' debacle

By Ethan Gauvin
On February 7, 2014

"Duck Dynasty," the A&E reality show starring a vivacious family of Southern entrepreneurs, has hooked TV audiences across the country and is now the most watched nonfiction cable series in America.

The swashbuckling, carefree attitude exhibited by the Robertson family provides nonstop entertainment and bewilderment; viewers can't help but laugh as they watch the Robertsons manage their wildly successful duck hunting company whilst stumbling into misadventures in the backwoods of Louisiana. There's something about that Southern charm that keeps people coming back for more. 

However, disaster struck this past December. In an interview for "GQ" magazine, Phil Robertson - the head of the family and a beloved star of the show - landed in hot water for comments that were widely viewed as offensive. In expressing his views on homosexuality, Robertson began with a vulgar comparison between the anatomies of men and women, and then later added, "Everything is blurred on what's right and what's wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there."

Later in the interview Robertson switched gears and expressed his firm belief that African Americans were happy and content before the Civil Rights Movement, stating, "They [were] 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."

Although not intentionally malicious, Robertson produced some of the most insensitive and cringe-worthy quotes of the year-all in one interview. This is no small feat considering the competition provided by a 24-hour news cycle, crass politicians and a smorgasbord of reality TV. 

The backlash to these comments was swift and widespread. GLAAD, one of the most outspoken LGBT advocate organizations, called Robertson's ramblings "the vilest and most extreme" comments ever directed toward the LGBT community. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights activist, weighed in on the GQ interview claiming, "These statements uttered by Robertson are more offensive than the bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama, more than 59 years ago," referring to the bus driver who ordered Rosa Parks to sit in the back of the bus.

Desperate to preserve the crown jewel of their programming, A&E suspended Robertson indefinitely and quickly condemned the reality star's diatribe. 

Yet the controversy had only just begun. A double backlash (of sorts) emerged from conservative radio and television pundits who claimed that Robertson was entitled to his opinion and that his views fall under the protection of the first amendment-more specifically freedom of speech. These commentators were joined by Fox News contributors, socially conservative politicians and an "I Stand with Phil" petition that garnered nearly 200,000 signatures and demanded Robertson's immediate reinstatement on the show. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin chimed in on Twitter writing, "Free speech is [an] endangered species; those 'intolerants' hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all." Many in this cohort felt that A&E had acted unconstitutionally in suspending Robertson.  

During this period of First Amendment solidarity, however, the "Duck Dynasty" defenders lost sight of what they were purportedly fighting for. While it is true that Robertson's opinions are protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech is, to the chagrin of his most loyal fans, guaranteed to those "hatin'" on Robertson as well. In calling the denouncement of Robertson an attack on free speech, Sarah Palin and company inadvertently attacked free speech themselves. After all, no one prevented Robertson from expressing his beliefs; social conservatives are simply upset about the popular reaction to them.

The First Amendment applies to every American citizen, organization, interest group and company, and each is equally entitled to an opinion. Those who believe that Robertson is a quack and that his comments were nasty and draconian have the liberty to express such sentiments, and those who disagree are free to defend the man and his actions. 

What's more, A&E has every right - constitutionally and otherwise - to kick Robertson off the show. A private company has the authority to terminate a commercial contract with an individual if that individual violates the contract. Making incendiary remarks that could damage the reputation of a company, or in this case a TV network, is among standard grounds for dismissal-Robertson is no exception.

As of January, however, A&E announced that the "Duck Dynasty" star would return to the show sooner than expected, which is likely related to a decline in the show's ratings rather than a feeble effort at appeasement.   

In the final analysis, the entire fiasco had little to do with free speech but much to do with the changing social attitudes within the United States. A growing number of Americans are comfortable with homosexuality and many have become ardent supporters of marriage equality (it pains me to even have to mention racial equality), which is why the condemnation of Robertson sounded louder than his defense.

In a reactionary movement that hints at desperation, social conservatives have decided to use the First Amendment as their go-to defense. This is a tragic mistake; freedom of speech is guaranteed to everyone and reflects both ephemeral and permanent shifts in American public opinion. The appropriate response is to come up with reasonable ways to challenge, debate and change that opinion, rather than dramatize our right to have it. 


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