Tolerance is a two-way street

Published 8:39 am Saturday, December 28, 2013

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

— The first amendment to the United States Constitution

It’s probably safe to say that, regardless of how familiar they were with the family that stars in it, most Americans had at least heard of the television series “Duck Dynasty” as of a couple weeks ago. Those who were not almost certainly are now, and know that the family patriarch Phil Robertson has created quite a stir over comments he made in a recent magazine article regarding his views on sin and, more specifically, homosexuality. The A&E Network, which airs the show, has chosen to suspend Robertson from future production of the show, at least for now. The outcry over that decision has occupied much of the nation’s dialogue in the days since.

Defenders of Robertson and the views he espoused, which when boiled down and substantially paraphrased equate to the belief that the Bible defines homosexual behavior as sin, have been quick to accuse A&E of violating Robertson’s constitutionally protected freedom of speech. They have not.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids the government from prohibiting the free speech of its citizens. It does not, however, allow a person to speak his or her mind without consequence, especially in employer/employee relationships. Most employees are expected to adhere to a certain code of conduct, which often times includes a clear definition of what is or is not acceptable behavior as it pertains to how an employee represents the organization they work for. In this case, the producers of “Duck Dynasty” almost certainly have written into the Robertson’s contract specific language that protects the network from potentially embarrassing behavior, including the ability to suspend or terminate their contract. The First Amendment protects Robertson from criminal prosecution or retribution from the government. It does not protect him from getting fired if A&E found his comments to be objectionable.

So what is really at play here is not an issue of free speech, but our society’s obsession with limiting offensive speech as defined solely by those who claim to be offended.

Many have taken very vocal sides on this latest example, one side claiming Robertson to be a man of moral virtue and the other reducing him to a cartoonish redneck. The truth, which is not for me to judge, is likely somewhere in the middle. I have personally read the entire magazine article in which he was quoted so I could determine for myself and without outside influence the context in which his comments were made. As it turns out, Robertson’s comments were not made in an unprovoked tirade against homosexuals, but were a response to a very specific question posed by the writer on what he felt constituted sin. Citing a biblical passage, homosexual behavior made his list. A leading gay and lesbian advocacy group proclaimed that it had been offended, and Robertson was indefinitely suspended from the show.

The fact that the Bible, claimed by many religions even beyond Christianity to be the Word of God, defines homosexual behavior as sinful is not revelatory information. So why the public outcry when one man claims it is his personal belief? Because our society, which claims to hold dear the freedom of speech and right to personal opinion, seemingly does so only to the extent that others’ personal opinions agree with our own. Our culture, which seeks ways each and every day to become more diverse and accepting of those with differing backgrounds and opinions is actively attempting to exclude those whose opinions are not deemed appropriately diverse and accepting. The irony that a community that has long fought to find a voice in American culture demanding that another’s be silenced is inescapable. A society seeking to be more tolerant ought to recognize that tolerance is a two-way street.