Duck Dynasty Controversy: A Few Points to Consider

Posted: December 21, 2013 in Culture, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

duck dynastyI could be fired for writing this. By “this,” I don’t mean the words to follow. I mean that this very sentence I’m typing right now, in this format, could theoretically get me canned.

By the way — Hi, regular readers! Assuming any of you are still left. Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. I took a new job, and for a while I was commuting 90 minutes each way. I really didn’t have time to do much posting.

I don’t want to tell you where I work, for reasons that will become apparent. Suffice it to say that it’s a media-related job with a sizable corporation. I like it. I’m happy with my employers and my co-workers.

But I wasn’t happy about one stipulation that I had to agree to when I took the job. It stated, effectively, that I was barred from public communication outside the job. No books. No blogs. In light of the fact that this was a week before my book was scheduled to be released, I was less than pleased.

One of my supervisors confirmed what I suspected. The company didn’t intend to vigorously enforce this provision. It was just in place so they’d be covered in case I should decide to start a blog devoted entirely to trashing my employer. Or something outrageous that might hurt our public image, such as white supremacist propaganda.

I guess that sort of “no public controversy clause” is increasingly common. But is it right?

I started considering that when I read about Phil Robertson, the guy who got fired from the hit A&E reality series “Duck Dynasty” over his homophobic remarks in an interview with GQ.

I’ll say a few things up front. This might be a wishy-washy piece, because I’m not going to arrive at any answers here. I simply don’t have them. All I intend to do — all I’m capable of doing — is raising a few points that may be worth considering. I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ve never seen “Duck Dynasty,” nor have I ever felt any desire to check it out. I have gay and lesbian friends and relatives, and I am a staunch supporter of their rights. Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality, which I will not reiterate here, were grossly insulting to these friends and family members of mine. They disgusted me.

I saw some comments on social media to the effect that A&E’s decision to fire Robertson was a violation of the constitutional principle of freedom of speech. My first reaction, when I saw those comments, was to roll my eyes. Don’t these people understand what “the constitutional principle of freedom of speech” means? It refers to the role of government. If a government agency subjected Robertson to some kind of legal sanction for his remarks, THAT would be a violation of constitutional principles. Didn’t happen.

He has a legal right to say whatever he wants. And if I find his remarks offensive (which I do) and decide to start a boycott of A&E unless they fire him (which seems unnecessary at this point), I’m exercising my freedom of speech. The system works.

But is it really that simple?

Let’s not talk about Freedom of Speech, the constitutional principle. Let’s talk about plain ol’ freedom of speech — the ability to say what you want, when you want. The rationale for Robertson’s firing is that he entered into a contract with A&E. He was essentially serving as a public face of the company.  If he does something to make himself a liability to the network, they can fire him. Nobody forced him to sign that contract at gunpoint.

Obviously, that kind of thing is very important for TV personalities, whose entire job description is based on being in the public eye. Companies should be able to dismiss employees who become liabilities in that respect, right?

Yet, that also sounds very similar to the company policy that says I can be fired for writing this blog post. Nobody forced me at gunpoint to sign that agreement. (Although I was informed of that policy only after I’d left my previous employer and showed up for the first day of the new job. Just sayin’.)

And I can’t say I’d necessarily be opposed to that policy, under certain circumstances. I work hard doing my part to make the company I work for successful. Ideological objections aside, I would be very annoyed if a colleague negated my efforts by driving off potential customers with a misogynistic blog or self-published anti-Semitic rant tract. Even if he wrote said blog or rant tract on his own time, it would make little difference if people saw him as the public face of the company. I’d likely be happy if this theoretical co-worker got his ass fired.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s easy to protect speech you agree with and condemn speech you disagree with. The problem is that it’s always a double-edged sword. Sanctions that you condone for the guy you DON’T agree with can eventually apply to the one you DO agree with. Or to you.

So let’s look at employers with the “no public controversy” clause. Like mine. Yeah, you could argue that nobody’s forcing anybody to work for them. But would that really hold any more water than the argument that nobody was forcing black people to patronize segregated diners in the early 1960s?

And say that clause went on to become as ubiquitous and accepted as workplace prohibitions on smoking. What if you had no reasonable option other than to accept it?

It’s not hard to imagine some dire possibilities arising from that scenario. For example, picture selective enforcement where bosses fired employees with blogs supporting Political Candidate A, but looked the other way when they supported Political Candidate B. Having recently worked for an employer that blatantly harassed union supporters via selective enforcement, I know that’s no abstract hypothetical.

So there’s no question A&E had a legal right to fire Robertson, and a sound practical reason to do so. I’m just wondering if I should be applauding what happened to him. Even if I think he’s wrong.

By the way — you may wonder why I’m writing this, despite what I was saying back there in the first sentence. It’s because I believe in freedom of speech.  Although I’m not always sure what it means these days.

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree. A contract is a contract. I don’t know the stipulations of PR’s contract with A&E, but if it states to not say such things (I seriously doubt it was THAT specific), then they have contractual reasons to can him. HOWEVER, the issue is not just that and constitutional rights do not apply to just the interactions between the government and the people. Additionally, the biggest gripe I’ve been reading about PR’s being canned is that companies, such as A&E, seem to have no issue with people trashing Christian principles and even outright insulting Christianity in the most profane ways under the guise of “liberty”. But speak one’s opinion that is opposed to something like homosexuality and your ass is grass. It’s their duplicity and own intolerance that I’ve seen a lot of complaints about. (and just to mention it, this is the first I have commented on this PR issue at all.)

    • Thanks for weighing in.
      I can’t address the issue of A&E’s treatment of Christianity. Like I said in the post, I’m not much of a TV watcher, so I wouldn’t know.
      I’m not a legal expert either, so I can’t authoritatively address private companies’ legal responsibilities under the Constitution. But when it comes to the principle of adherence to constitutional principles, I’m reminded of another issue. Workplace drug testing.
      Every time I’ve taken a new job in recent decades, I’ve been required to take a urine test to show that I’m not a drug user. (For the record, I’ve always passed.)
      Civil liberties groups have challenged this widespread drug screening, on the argument that it’s a de facto violation of constitutional protection under the fourth amendment. Though I’ve never been in danger of failing one of these tests, I don’t like taking them in principle. The same way that I’d find it objectionable if the local police department required all of the residents of my town to submit to drug testing. Yes, that would be a very efficient way of combating the drug trade, but it would also be a gross infringement on personal liberty.
      The local police can’t do that, of course. But private companies routinely get away with things that the government is prohibited from doing. The rationale being that I have a choice whether I want to do business with or work for a company, but I can’t simply decide I want to quit paying my taxes.
      So in theory, if I object to drug testing, I don’t have to work for a company that does it. In practice, drug testing is so widespread that it simply isn’t a realistic option. So I dutifully piss into a vial, even though I don’t like it.
      The way I see it, companies such as A&E are in it for the money. And I don’t see that as inherently good or inherently bad. That’s just the purpose of companies — to make a profit.
      Because of Robertson’s comments, they deemed him to be a liability to their continued profitability. So they let him go.
      As I indicated in my post, I have mixed feelings about that. I’m not a big believer in laissez faire capitalism, but I do believe in companies’ rights to do what’s necessary within reason to make a profit. If Robertson said something that hurts them as a business, they should have a right to get rid of him.
      And if people find his viewpoints offensive and threaten to boycott A&E for failing to fire him, they’re also exercising their rights to free speech.
      And yet, like I said in the post, I can also see where that principle could cause some real problems if it goes unchecked. If it reaches a point where any employer can fire you for publicly saying anything that might piss somebody off, and the practice becomes so widespread that working for a company without that policy just isn’t a practical option, the result would be society-wide suppression of free speech that would be virtually indistinguishable from a totalitarian regime.
      What it comes down to is that the landscape is changing. These days, anybody with Internet access can write something with potentially global reach. In the coming years, I believe it’s going to be an increasingly complicated and important question of civil rights law — protecting companies’ rights to insulate themselves from harm, vs. protecting the rights of individuals to express themselves.
      And as with any question of free speech, the real test comes when it’s somebody saying something you disagree with, like I disagree with Robertson.
      Whatever happens in the years ahead with these issues, it should be interesting to watch.

  2. Carlette says:

    Tom, I’ve been riding this horse for a few days. I’ve been battling with Conservatives and Tea Baggers all week and I’m really sick of it. I don’t want to think about, talk about or digest this man’s comments and debate whatever they may or may not have been his true intentions, debated whether he is a racist homophobe or heard one last flipping word about hunting ducks. I’ve had
    E-NOUGH!! I just came to say hello, show you my support, tell you how glad I am to seeing you writing and most importantly to tell you what a great piece this is! ❤

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