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René Bryce-Laporte Headshot

It's Not the Scandal, But the Backlash

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I'm not a Duck Dynasty watcher, but I've got no particular beef with those that are. And I didn't have any particular beef with the "cast members" until recently.

For those who have been on a media blackout over the last week or so, Phil Robertson, the star of A&E's reality show star Duck Dynasty, gave an interview appearing in the January issue of GQ Magazine. In that interview, he made several incendiary remarks including comparisons of homosexuality to bestiality and suggestions that blacks were happy during the period of Jim Crow.

When the interview became public, A&E network suspended Mr. Robertson. The backlash against A&E has been ferocious, with criticism coming largely -- though not exclusively -- from conservative legislators and talking heads. Commentators ranging from Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to Texas Senator Ted Cruz have risen to complain about political correctness gone wild and violations of Mr. Robertson's rights of free speech and religion.

While I disagree with the sentiment that Mr. Robertson shouldn't face negative consequences for his bigotry, my larger concern is that public figures are exploiting the public's thin knowledge of history, the Constitution and the Bible to purposely mislead their followers.

Here are a few points for consideration:

1) Phil Robertson's first amendment rights were not violated. The first amendment declares that the government cannot abridge your right to free speech. With a very few specific exceptions like shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, you don't get arrested for what you say in America. That is special. That is not true everywhere. Still, you can face consequences. And in this case your private industry employer can sure suspend or fire you for saying things that will offend a significant portion of their business' customer base. Think I'm misleading you? Here's an experiment: next time your boss does something to annoy you, go ahead and say something about the virtue of their mother in front of their biggest client. After they suspend or fire you, talk to your lawyer and then let me know how that worked out for you.

2) The significant majority of politicians and a large number of the prognosticators who claim or suggest that Mr. Robertson's first amendment rights have been violated, are aware that this isn't true. For instance, Texas Senator Ted Cruz once led the Supreme Court practice of Morgan Lewis, one of the most prominent law firms in America and taught Supreme Court litigation at the University of Texas, one of the nation's best law schools. Rest assured he has bumped into the first amendment once or twice. When Senator Cruz talks about Robertson being punished for exercising his right of free speech, he knows both that those without legal experience will assume he means that Mr. Robertson's rights have been violated and that Mr. Robertson's rights have not actually been violated. In the word of that Great American philosopher, Charles Barkley, "I might be wrong, but I doubt it."

3) If you were a bigwig at A&E you would have done something too. Imagine if they had done nothing in response to Robertson's rants. There would certainly have been an uproar. You can't have your biggest star insulting big chunks of the American populace with impunity. Yes, A&E could have simply issued a disagreeing statement. But, in my mind anything less than a suspension would have been too weak. This was a business decision. Certainly those who have written letters to A&E have affected how the company sees its business decision.

4) Goodness, Phil Robertson is not the flippin' "Rosa Parks of our generation" as claimed by Illinois congressional candidate Ian Bayne. Rosa Parks made a planned, but still unlawful protest to an oppressive law in an environment where she expected to be jailed and where violators of racial constructs frequently faced threats to their economic futures and their very lives. Her protest in a very real way launched the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Phil Robertson made inflammatory comments to GQ magazine. Yes, he risked people disagreeing with him and the potential that his employers would not want him around anymore. But let's keep it real here. The stakes are not even vaguely the same. Unlike Ms. Parks, it is not clear that he gave the consequences much thought beforehand.

5) Phil Robertson is not acting as the great defender of Christianity. First of all, those like Candidate Bayne who suggest that Christians are oppressed in the United States need to back up and recognize the absurdity of that claim. Christians are in the significant majority of our country and always have been. There are countless Christian people and institutions that do great things in every state in the union. Christians have churches, schools, social institutions and charities that operate openly and freely, nationwide. American Christians are not oppressed. Christians are not forced to sit in the back of the bus. They are not denied the right to vote. They are not beaten or lynched for their religious beliefs. There have certainly been many times and places where Christians have been oppressed. The United States in 2013 is not one of those times or places. Claims to the contrary are simply and thankfully preposterous.

Furthermore, if Mr. Robertson was really acting as an advocate for Christianity, he would be spend the large part of his energy advocating that we take care of the "least of these". While some are consumed with below the belt issues, helping those who are less fortunate is a sentiment that is far more prominent in the Bible.

Can we go back to pretending that we are shocked and horrified by Miley Cyrus now?