Jim Bennett: Free speech doesn't guarantee you a TV show

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2 2014 3:25 p.m. MST

This undated image released by A&E shows Phil Robertson, flanked by his sons Jase Robertson, left, and Willie Robertson from the popular series This undated image released by A&E shows Phil Robertson, flanked by his sons Jase Robertson, left, and Willie Robertson from the popular series "Duck Dynasty." (Zach Dilgard, Associated Press)

On the surface, you would think “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson and comedian Bill Maher have very little in common. Phil is an unapologetic Christian conservative, while Bill is a left-wing atheist. Yet they share a bond of infamy that illustrates the hypocrisy of many so-called “free speech” advocates.

Both Phil and Bill have gotten into hot water for saying controversial things on national television. What’s ironic to me, however, is that those who were furious at Bill for his remarks are the ones defending Phil for his, and vice versa.

That drives me crazy.

A little background might be helpful. After the 9/11 attacks, Bill Maher took issue with President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as “cowards,” noting that it takes bravery to give your life in a cause, no matter how evil or misguided. “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly," Maher said on his ABC late-night talk show “Politically Incorrect.” "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

The outrage was immediate and widespread, especially given that he made these remarks just weeks after the attacks when emotions were still raw. Many called for ABC to fire Maher, and, while the network initially defended its host, the executives finally canceled the show. This resulted in indignant editorials from left-wing pundits who claimed that the sacking of Bill Maher was an affront to his fundamental constitutional rights.

Take columnist Dewayne Wickham, who wrote the following for USA Today: “(Terrorists) don't tolerate dissent. They don't believe in free speech. We, on the other hand, do. At least that's what we say.” He went on to lament the fact that Maher losing his job shows “the kind of intolerance and irrationality terrorists display,” and that “rather than attempt to shut him up, Bill Maher's critics … should hold him up as an example of one of this nation's greatest strengths: our freedom of speech.”

That’s nifty. It’s also stupid.

Fact is, Bill Maher has the right to say anything he wants. He did then, and he does now. So does every other American. What neither he nor anyone else has is the right to expect a national network to put you on television to say it. All the First Amendment guarantees is that the government can’t lock you up for whatever nonsense comes out of your yap. That’s a great thing, but it’s not a shield from private consequences of saying something asinine.

In other words, the First Amendment means that when your wife asks if a dress makes her look fat, you won’t go to jail if you answer “yes.” But beyond that, all bets are off.

So here we are a dozen or so years later, and the “Duck Dynasty” patriarch makes comments about homosexuality that have enraged many of those who defended Maher, and, in turn, have prompted those who attacked Maher to defend Robertson on the same constitutionally spurious grounds. "Free speech is an endangered species,” Sarah Palin wrote in defense of the “Duck Dynasty” patriarch.

Except that’s hooey. Nobody’s talking about locking Phil Robertson up; they only suspended him from his TV show. (He was reinstated less than two weeks later.)

TV people get fired on a regular basis, and the Constitution is rightly powerless to stop it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for free speech. What I’m against is the selective and specious invocation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution only in defense of the guy with which one happens to agree.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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