A&E’s "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson was suspended following a GQ interview where he expressed his personal distaste of the gay rights movement, echoed biblical views that homosexuality is a sin, and rambled about how blacks were happier during the Jim Crow era.
The network announced that Phil’s “personal views in no way reflect those of A&E networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community.” As a result Phil was put “on indefinite hiatus.”
Isn’t reality TV supposed to be about reality?
Clearly stating that Phil’s views don’t represent the network was not enough. The network had to punish Phil for expressing his views.
Regardless of how vile and distasteful Phil’s views are, the network should not have suspended him.
Here are the top 5 reasons why:
1. Isn’t reality TV supposed to be about reality? This interview was unscripted and uncensored. It was Phil’s real and raw opinions, however distasteful. Reality TV casts are not supposed to be scripted with professional actors.
2. Phil was hired by A&E. The comments were made to GQ. Why should A&E care about what Phil says to some other media outlet? Miley Cyrus made disparaging comments about old Jewish men to the website Hunger TV. This did not affect Miley’s relationship with the networks that carry her music. Phil is just a reality TV character, unlike Martin Bashir who made vile comments about Sara Palin in the context of hosting a show for MSNBC.
3. Writing for Time, gay rights advocate Brandon Ambrosino points out that A&E blew an opportunity to foster a discussion that could go along way in dispelling myths on homosexuality. He says:
"Why is our go-to political strategy for beating our opponents to silence them? Why do we dismiss, rather than engage them? One of the biggest pop-culture icons of today just took center stage to “educate” us about sexuality. I see this as an opportunity to further the discussion, to challenge his limited understanding of human desire, to engage with him and his rather sizable audience — most of whom, by the way, probably share his views — and to rise above the endless sea of tweet-hate to help move our LGBT conversations to where they need to go.
The sad irony is that quelling Phil’s viewpoints did more harm than good for the LGBT cause. It further polarized the nation about a subject we should not fear openly discussing.
4. Even if A&E had full legal rights to suspend Phil for expressing his views, since the constitution generally applies to state entities, not private corporations, the actions were not in the spirit of valuing free expression. Sabotaging careers over comments sends the message that we don’t value free speech.
5. Phil was presumably expressing his religious views. No matter how distasteful, religious views get greater constitutional protections even in the private entity context. Private employers are generally allowed to fire employees if they don’t like what they say, but if they are expressing a religious viewpoint, the speech may be protected and should certainly be viewed with greater sensitivity.
By attempting to control and censor Phil’s real views, A&E’s actions contradict what reality TV is supposed to represent. It also serves to punish someone for making a disagreeable statement to another network, outside the context of what A&E hired Phil to do.
Stifling his views further undermines the ability to foster open and candid discussion on LGBT issues. It contradicts the spirit of free speech, even if not the law, and punishes someone for expressing what could be considered a religious view.
A&E made a big mistake.
Eliyahu Federman writes frequently on religion, culture, business and law. Follow him on Twitter @EliFederman and find him on Facebook.com/eli.federman. He is also an executive at the e-commerce company 1Sale.com. The opinions expressed here represent his personal views.