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Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson Suspended for Anti-Gay Comments: Is This Censorship?

duck-dynastyA&E suspended Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson indefinitely today, responding to comments he made about homosexuals in an interview with GQ magazine.

Robertson, well-known for being a devout Christian, went on at length about his beliefs that being gay is a sin, and compared it with a list of other behaviors (specifically referred to in the Bible) that he considers equally offensive.

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” he said. “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.”

A&E moved swiftly to remove Robertson from the Duck Dynasty roster. They said in a statement:

“We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty. His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely.”

The debate  on the show’s Facebook page and in comments on articles about Robertson’s comments and suspension show much support for the duck call mogul-turned-reality TV star from people who share his religious and personal values. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said 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.”

Others who don’t agree with Robertson’s point of view support his right to speak it and consider A&E’s actions censorship. There is talk of boycotting the show, the channel, and the Duck Dynasty sponsors. However, LGBT rights supporters like GLAAD are pleased with the channel’s actions and believe they send the message that hate is not a Christian or American value.

I understand people having strong opinions and reactions to this, but it’s inaccurate to equate A&E’s choice to suspend Phil Robertson with a violation of his freedom of speech. Phil Robertson absolutely has the right to say whatever he wants, as the First Amendment states, but what is frequently missed about this is that we are not guaranteed freedom from repercussions based on what we say, just because we’re free to say it. A&E knew about the Duck Dynasty family’s faith. It has been clear from the beginning, and given the show’s overwhelming popularity and the channel’s strong promotion, it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Robertson refers to his family in the GQ interview as “Bible thumpers who just happened to end up on television.” They pray every week at the end of the show, and even though they had recent conflict with A&E about censoring the word “Jesus” from one of the episodes, if the channel had a problem with them sharing their beliefs, they didn’t show it.

Phil’s choice in the interview to expand his discussions of God and religion to criticism of the lifestyles of others, some of whom also undoubtedly make up a percentage of A&E’s viewing audience, changed the situation. Yes, he was free to make the statements that he made. This is when A&E — a private business — can decide how it wants to respond to statements like this from one of their personalities. They decided that they wanted to suspend him. This did not happen simply because he expressed his opinion. It happened because, as A&E said, they cannot support his personal views, as they have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community

It’s tricky stuff, and a line that companies in media — who depend upon a constantly shifting balance of viewing eyes, advertising dollars, and Internet clicks — have to walk with care. If they ignore controversial statements like Robertson’s, they run the risk of alienating those he criticized. Holding him accountable in the way that they have done, though, sets up the kind of debate and backlash that’s happening now among countless fans of the show.

A&E has dealt with this before. They halted production on Dog the Bounty Hunter in 2007, after he used a racial slur in a phone call leaked to the press. It was later reinstated. And we know all about the Food Network cutting Paula Deen from their programming after her racially charged comments were revealed through court case documentation.

The Robertson family has said that the three things they’ll never negotiate on when it comes to production are faith, selling out other family members, and duck hunting season. What the rest of the family will do in support of Phil hasn’t been stated yet, and he hasn’t said anything either. The show is due back for a fourth season in January, and Phil appears in much of that, so what viewers experience won’t be affected right away. We’ll see how long people can hold out with boycotts when they’re faced with the promise of brand new episodes of a wildly popular show. They can vote with their remote controls, just as Phil chose to open up to a reporter about his belief that homosexuality is a sin, and A&E chose to respond with a resounding “no thanks” to that freely-expressed belief.

All things considered, it’s much less complicated, and potentially much less interesting, to be a duck.

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