If you haven't heard of Duck Dynasty before, you probably have today. That's because Phil Robertson, the star of the A&E reality TV show that follows a family in the duck hunting business, was suspended indefinitely for making comment perceived to be anti-gay in a GQ profile that asked "How in the world did a family of squirrel-eating, Bible-thumping, catchphrase-spouting duck hunters become the biggest TV stars in America?" Here is the relevant excerpt, where Robertson appears to be comparing homosexuality to bestiality:
"We're Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television," he [Phil Robertson] tells me. "You put in your article that the Robertson family really believes strongly that if the human race loved each other and they loved God, we would just be better off. We ought to just be repentant, turn to God, and let's get on with it, and everything will turn around."
What does repentance entail? Well, in Robertson's worldview, America was a country founded upon Christian values (Thou shalt not kill, etc.), and he believes that the gradual removal of Christian symbolism from public spaces has diluted those founding principles. (He and Si take turns going on about why the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed outside courthouses.) He sees the popularity of Duck Dynasty as a small corrective to all that we have lost.
"Everything is blurred on what's right and what's wrong," he says. "Sin becomes fine."
What, in your mind, is sinful?
"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 heparaphrases 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."
In the profile, Robertson complains that the more "controversial" statements he makes in his religion-laden show about hunting ducks get cut by A&E. He opines to GQ about how a vagina should just be "more desirable" to a man than an anus. "That's just me." It's a show about a duck hunter operating in the Louisiana backwoods, who says the kinds of things you might expect a duck hunter from the Louisiana backwoods to say. In deciding to suspend Robertson indefinitely, A&E sought to make sure people understood "[h]is personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community." I don't know who could confuse the things said by a man who stars in a reality show about duck hunting with things the executives at the network might believe. Nevertheless, A&E made the decision the controversy stirred up by Robertson was something they wanted to distance themselves from. They haven't pulled episodes of Duck Dynasty (or any merchandise), and I expect they'll get a decent ratings bump because of all the people who've never heard of Phil Robertson or Duck Dynasty before this story broke.
Mediaite's Andrew Kirell rightly called A&E's decision "a gross misstep." After all, it should not have surprised A&E that Phil Robertson would say the things he did. Engaging and challenging Robertson's ideas is a more effective response to those ideas than trying to silence Robertson, which Kirell notes, only provides "culture warriors" more ammo.
And has it. Todd Starnes, who Kirell singled out as one of those culture warriors, claimed A&E declared a war on Christian values. It hasn't. It decided to appear to penalize one of its stars for making a comment it believes some of its viewers (though probably not of Duck Dynasty itself) might take offense to in an effort to limit its liabilities in an incident it had nothing to do with.
Sarah Palin blamed Robertson's suspension on "intolerants" and called it an "attack on free speech." It's not. A & E has the right to choose to associate or not with Robertson, and should be able to base that decision on anything it wants. Labor laws may prohibit them from some forms of discrimination, but not for punishing someone who says he's just espousing his religion's views. Ideally, laws wouldn't constrict A&E's freedom of association at all.
Bobby Jindal blamed "political correctness." Maybe. He tried to frame it as a first amendment issue too, claiming to "remember when TV networks believed" in such a thing, going on to call it "a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended." I wouldn't put it past Jindal to pull Cyrus and other performers who say things offensive to him off the air if he could.
Ted Cruz tried to channel his inner TV critic, suggesting Duck Dynasty was popular "because it represents the America usually ignored or mocked by liberal elites: a family that loves and cares for each other, believes in God, and speaks openly about their faith." Cruz went on to pay lip service to the freedom to disagree in a free society, but followed up by saying "the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree." A&E, though, writes the checks Phil Robertson cashes, so it can certainly "censor" him for views they disagree with. To borrow a framing beloved by statists, the mainstream media is "just us," a reflection of what Americans want to watch and hear. People who disagree with Robertson want to tune in to hear him condemned. People who agree with Robertson want to tune in to hear him defended.
A&E's suspension of Robertson is within their right. If their aim, however, is actually to be "strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community," their application of the Streisand effect to Robertson's views couldn't possibly have helped.
In this month's issue of Reason, Jonathan Rauch explains why the argument for restricting speech to promote tolerance is even weaker than it was 20 years ago, when his book Kindly Inquisitors, a defense of free speech and the public criticism necessary to build knowledge that it fosters, was first published. An updated version for the twentieth anniversary was released this year. Watch a Reason TV Q&A with Rauch below: