Friday, December 20, 2013

COMMENTARY: The politicization of the 'Free Speech Defense' needs to stop


KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- First, let me tell what this column will not be about.

It will not be about whether homosexuality is a sin or a choice. It will not be about if A&E was right in firing Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty for remarks made in a GQ interview.

I’ll leave that for you to choose. There are countless articles on countless Websites available for you to read about those two angles of the story.

(Plus, being a libertarian, what an individual believes in doesn’t matter to me unless it infringes on my right to believe what I choose to. )

What this commentary will be about: How the First Amendment of the United States’ Bill of Rights is being twisted to fit a partisan agenda by both conservatives and liberals.

There have been three high profile alleged “free speech” controversies in recent months, one of which with a bit of a local tie.

Earlier this year, University of Kansas professor David Guth tweeted out an anti-NRA statement that pinned the blame of a massacre on the NRA. Next came MSNBC host Martin Bashir being critical of Sarah Palin and using over the top language in doing so.

Now here’s Robertson and the Duck Dynasty controversy at our doorstep.

While the details are different, all three cases have the same main course: An individual saying something that upsets a lot of people, with the individual being punished by his employer after the backlash.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here. These three cases are not First Amendment cases. The First Amendment gives Americans the right for free speech. Guth, Bashir and Robertson practiced this.

What the First Amendment does not do is protect us from consequences of that free speech. All three individuals work for large organizations that could take a financial hit as a result of sponsorship boycotts. And in today’s partisan world, boycotts and responses to those boycotts are effective. See Chick-fil-A for that.

Also, please note: Robertson, Guth and Bashir are not spending time in jail for their comments. They are not being prosecuted. They’re not paying fines to a local government as a result of what they said. All three individuals were protected by the First Amendment simply because of that reason alone.

An example that will hit home for everyone: How many of you would love to tell your boss where to stick it? How many of you will not because of the fear you have of getting fired due to the consequences of you making those comments? Well, there you go.

You have all the freedom of speech you want. But what you don’t have is freedom from consequence.

So please, if you’re defending any of those three, the “First Amendment” argument is a bad one. A&E, the University of Kansas and MSNBC acted freely, as did the three people in those cases. Agree or disagree all you want, but that’s the reality.

However, the greater concern I have with all three cases is how partisan the free speech issue has become.

When Guth tweeted out his anti-NRA remarks, conservatives across the State of Kansas were calling for his firing. Multiple Republicans from the Kansas Legislature were calling for him to be fired or to resign. Many on the left, meanwhile, shouted “First Amendment” and “free speech.” The same was the case with the Bashir-Palin controversy.

Many of those same liberals – a few I know personally – are now outraged at Robertson for simply expressing his religious views and immediately wanted A&E to fire him or cancel the show. And of course, conservatives (again, some I know personally) now have a sudden new found respect for the First Amendment, completing the ideological flip-flop on free speech when the parties in question change.

Disagreement and a divided country is nothing new.

However, looking back on 2013, one disturbing development I noticed this year was the partisanship of free speech.

Among the partisans on the right and the left, now free speech only matters when the person in question agrees with them. Sorry, but that should not be the case.

Whether if you’re a conservative, liberal, moderate or a fellow libertarian, if you’re going to thump your chests with the free speech defense, it needs to apply to everyone - regardless if you agree or disagree with them. It’s intellectually dishonest to become passionate about the First Amendment only when you agree with the person in the crosshairs.

The past 48 hours, you’ve probably been flooded with emails or seen Facebook status updates about how freedom is under attack in America right now.

To me, the Robertson controversy is a shining example of freedom in America. 

Robertson was allowed to freely express his religious views in a nationwide publication without being jailed or prosecuted by the government.

A&E, being a private company, was allowed to fire him if they believed he did not fit the network’s image or profile.

Now, Americans have the opportunity to reward A&E for its choice or to punish it via a boycott of the network.

This is what freedom is all about.


Nick Sloan is the publisher of The Kansas City Kansan. He can be reached at