Oedel: A little too free?

January 5, 2014 

Unless you were very far away for the holidays or under a rock, you’ve already heard plenty about the Phil Robertson flap.

Robertson is the patriarch of the Robinson clan that’s been featured in a popular cable show “Duck Dynasty.” That’s the reality series that explores the dryly witty Robertson family in their lives together, prominently including hunting ducks and everything else that moves in the “yuppie-free” woods, running a successful duck-call business and living as an extended Christian family in a Louisiana piney-woods setting.

The show ping-pongs around the themes of redneck backwater, upscale money-making suburbia, prayerful thankfulness, hearty eating, competitive-but-loving family dynamics and personal eccentricity.

Robertson submitted to a GQ magazine interview in which he commented on two topics that crossed A&E’s threshold of political correctness, for which Robertson was indefinitely suspended, with a national uproar ensuing. As the interviewer Drew Magary knowingly wrote in his article, Robertson was free in the interview, “maybe a little too free.”

Among his most controversial comments, Robertson said homosexual behavior was immoral.

“But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical,” he said.

Apart from reasoning based on his native sense of sexual attraction, Robertson also loosely quoted Paul’s first book of Corinthians on the general subject of sin, with which Robertson admitted having great personal familiarity, especially as a young man. “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. 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.”

On the subject of growing up in pre-civil rights-era Louisiana, Robertson said: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field. ... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ -- not a word! ... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

Robertson contextualized his whole interview, as he apparently contextualizes his whole life, within a Christian framework. “We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television,” Robertson told Magary. “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.”

Although most people seem to disagree with Robertson in some respects, it seems that most people do appreciate Robertson’s verve in directly addressing touchy subjects in full public view. Robertson has at least provided an opportunity for the country to ponder how horrible it was or is in America to be categorically, legally second class, whether black or gay.

As a constitutional law professor, I’m pleased that the Robertson controversy has sensitized the public to the fact that the First and 14th amendments’ prohibitions against governmental action respecting speech do not extend to private parties like A&E. That means, as a technical legal matter, that A&E is free to discipline Robertson for his speech as A&E sees fit.

But I also very much appreciate the instinctive reaction of the public that A&E went overboard in trying to squelch Robertson’s speech. That reaction shows that the principle of free expression roots even deeper than the constitutional protection. Let’s give thanks that freedom is embedded in the American spirit.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer law school.

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