‘Duck’ star acted within his rights, so did A&E

December 31, 2013

It’s just not a holiday season without a little religious rancor.

For a time it seemed this Christmas might be less divisive than usual. In early December, evangelical Christian writer Rachel Held Evans offered a way for people to tell if they’re being persecuted.

“Did someone threaten your life, safety, civil liberties or right to worship?” she asked. If the answer is no, you’re not being persecuted.

She continued, “Did someone wish you happy holidays?” If the answer is yes, she wrote, you’re still not being persecuted. It was like a breath of fresh, frosty air. But, unfortunately, that was followed by the inane “Is Santa white?” debate, which was overtaken by the even bigger “Duck Dynasty” controversy.

“Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, in a magazine interview, offered his opinions about gays and race.

I won’t repeat the remarks, but they can be found easily online. You can decide for yourself whether he was treated fairly by A&E, the channel that airs “Duck Dynasty.” But A&E did not infringe upon his First Amendment rights, as many have alleged.

As it happens, I faced a similar situation while editor at the Dover Post. One deadline morning I received a call from a radio station. The announcer said we were on the air.

He asked if I knew about the blog belonging to a reporter of mine.  It contained some inflammatory commentary, the most incendiary being a “joke” about why the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

I looked up the blog - while we were on the air - and saw what my reporter had written. The announcer asked for my reaction. I don’t recall what I said, but after I hung up I called in the reporter.

I asked if this was his blog. He confirmed it was. I told him he was fired.  He went through some formalities with HR, but was out the door within 10 minutes of the phone call.

So here I was, an editor and a writer whose living depended on the First Amendment, firing someone for exercising his right to free speech. Was I in the wrong? Do I regret it?

No and no.

Here was my problem. I knew, as soon as I read his online commentary, that my reporter could not represent the Dover Post. We were a community newspaper, serving all segments of the population. For a broad swath of that community, this reporter would no longer be welcome.

Which meant he could no longer perform the job for which he had been hired. He had, by exercising his constitutional right to free speech, irreparably damaged his usefulness as a reporter.

For a brief time, it seemed all hell might broke loose. Channel 10 News in Philadelphia showed up on my front lawn one night after 9 p.m. The TV reporter assured me that my supposed violation of the reporter’s free speech rights was “going national.”

It didn’t, partly because my former reporter and I shared no personal animosity toward each other. Neither of us said anything to keep the story going.

And partly, I think, because most people realized that it wasn’t a First Amendment issue.  My reporter had every right to say what he thought. The First Amendment guarantees that. The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee that people will suffer no ill consequences.

That’s what happened to Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.” Exercising his right to speak out about homosexuality and race, he provoked a firestorm of criticism, for which he has paid dearly in terms of being forced to accept a higher level of fame and fortune.

I mean that seriously. If he’s suffered any harmful effects from his comments, I don’t know what they are.

Oh yes, he was suspended “indefinitely” from his show, which conveniently has a season already in the can. He will be appearing as usual in the new episodes.

Some people are calling for him to run for president, with Ted Nugent as his running mate. I suppose they would offer some entertainment value.

But for my last column of 2013, I’ll leave readers with my favorite First Amendment rights remark. One day a man called demanding a story about his company. There was nothing new about his business that would make for a story, so I referred him to the advertising department, whereupon he snarled indignantly, “I thought we had a free press in this country.”

I tried, gently, to explain that when the Founding Fathers spoke of a “free press” they weren’t referring to free advertising. I don’t think the message was fully understood.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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