A few weeks ago, the lead actor of yet another fabricated “[un-]reality show” – this of a family of millionaire duck callers in the southern Louisiana bayou – saw fit to offer up in an interview that “homosexuals are hated by God and it leads to bestiality,” along with “Blacks were happy under Jim Crow laws.” The qualifications of this individual to offer such perspectives, beyond simply declaring his own personal opinion of God and mankind, are near to non-existent. The predictable firestorm of condemnation of his remarks came quickly, and the A&E network “suspended” him from his highly popular show. Then came the follow-up backlash firestorm as his defenders weighted in. The social networks came alive; boycotts were announced; the media had their needed script for more self-attention. And then, after completing its run, it all went quickly and quietly away as everyone went back to their daily business, awaiting the next big fad story.
Most of this story can, and should, be easily dismissed as yet another personality unnecessarily speaking unneeded thoughts. But the reactive commentary did reveal a broader and more fundamental truth that Americans need to remind themselves: namely, that there are no absolute freedoms in America, nor should there be. There are only freedoms that exist in balance with the responsible exercise of those freedoms, and then a requirement that we take the consequences that may result from such an exercise.
Many of the duck caller’s supporters went on the counteroffensive not about the issues of homosexuality or civil rights, but of his First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech which they felt the resulting criticism violated in order to gag him. Therein lies the core issue worth our discussion: Freedom of Speech (or any other of our Bill of Rights Freedoms) versus the presumption of one being insulated and protected from the consequences of that speech.
It is certainly true that our First Constitutional Amendment protects our right to say what we please, however controversial or distasteful that may be. That right was derived from thousands of years in which absolute monarchs imprisoned or executed those who dared to speak out against them or the established Church. So the prime motivation of our Founders was to protect such expression of contrary political or social opinion, though it subsequently morphed into protecting the right to speak any opinion on anything. But such freedom to speak one’s opinion also equally allows others to speak their opinions in rebuttal if they so choose. And the law has always established certain limits to our exercise of our freedoms: speech that puts the public safety at risk (e.g. “fire” in the theater), or knowingly harms another’s reputation by spreading falsehoods, is not allowed under our free speech rights.
Further, one’s right to speak does not require me to have to listen to those opinions. It does not require me to provide a forum for those opinions. My right to peace and quiet allows for permissible restrictions on where your speech may be given, or to choose to not disseminate it in my newspaper or cable network. It allows me to fire the speaker from employment if his/her opinions injure my business; I have no obligation to finance speech that runs counter to my interest. (Witness the loss of corporate endorsements for Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods.) We have the right to speak freely, but it is our own responsibility to find a venue and audience for that speech.
Free speech protects the right to say stupid things, just as it similarly protects the right to publish bad taste. The First Amendment does not insist upon quality of thought. But it does not protect one from being criticized for speaking stupidly. If one chooses to throw a verbal grenade into the public forum of ideas, one should not be surprised when that grenade explodes and blows back debris all over that speaker. (Witness innumerable politicians with foot well-placed in mouth.) The blowback of negative responses does not prevent free speech, but instead serves as a needed cautionary restraint that hopefully encourages one to think through their opinions carefully, and the consequences of speaking “from the hip.” So the duck caller had every right to speak his opinions about homosexuals and Blacks, however noxious I and others may personally find them. But the surprise at the resulting controversy shows incredible naiveté on his (or anyone else’s) part.
In the end, one individual with no special insight expressed an opinion supported by some Americans and opposed by some others. And when the dust settled, our understanding of homosexuality and the civil rights movement was advanced not one iota. A 5-line commentary buried on page 35 should have been the end of this news-worthiness. Instead we saw a large discussion about the supposed violation of one man’s freedom to speak, though as far I can tell he had plenty of freedom to say what he said. But to give him immunity from reaction to his comments, to shut down the right of others to express their disagreements, simply moves the shoe from the right foot to the left.
The belief that any of our constitutional freedoms comes with no restrictions or consequences is simply another form of the arrogance that “it is just about Me” and what I want to say and do without regard for others. Our Bill of Rights are precious and hard won; we are often far too casual in our use of them. Our freedoms inherently expect us to use them wisely and responsibly, even as we may legitimately choose to exercise them in different ways. When we fail to act responsibly, we must accept the consequences of what we do, and expect that our freedom will thereby be curtailed appropriately. We can each choose different beliefs, express different opinions, walk different paths. But we are accountable for each of those choices we make and the benefits and damages that ensue from our conduct. That is the price we pay for our right to freedoms.
It is not unlike as in our personal lives. We can choose to say what we wish to one another. But we need not speak unnecessarily, carelessly or unkindly, and if we do, we are obligated to accept responsibility for the hurts and consequences our words engender. So say what you wish, as the First Amendment allows you to do. But please do not hide behind that Amendment when others speak their objections back to you. And if your speech attacks another’s character, understand that it is your own character that may then be called into question.
© 2014 Randy Bell