In the course of an excursion with GQ's Drew Magary, Phil Robertson, patriarch of the "Duck Dynasty" reality TV series, made remarks that, among other things, compared homosexuality to bestiality. (He also misidentified Mitt Romney's home city, but no one was up in arms about that as of the time of writing.) The host network of "Duck Dynasty," A&E, issued a statement saying that it was SHOCKED, SHOCKED by the gambling in this establishment -- or rather, that "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty," A&E Networks having "always been strong supporters and champions" of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. For good measure, Robertson was placed on an "indefinite hiatus."
And the backlash was instant. "StandwithPhil!" is hashtagging all over. For the uninitiated, Phil heads a family that made a fortune selling duck calls and whose members have allowed cameras to record their shenanigans as they go hunting, share their faith and sport luxurious beards. "Duck Dynasty" has now been dutifully laying golden (duck) eggs for A&E for four seasons, spawning best-selling books and attracting 14 million viewers -- nothing to shake a stick at. So, Help! Help! He's being repressed! Stand with Phil! Christians Unite! Turn off the thought police!
What happened to free speech? What happened to freedom of religion?
Even former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's weighing in. "Free speech is an endangered species. Those 'intolerants' hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us," she posted on her Facebook page. (Also, really? You're dropping the G while typin'?)
As we all know from a close reading of the Constitution, freedom of speech and religion is nothing without your own reality TV show. It says so somewhere in the fine print of the First Amendment.
You are, of course, perfectly free to express your religious beliefs and opinions (however noxious they may seem to some) without necessarily being allowed on television with them. Freedom of religion does not come with a pulpit included. But try telling someone on the Internet that.
We often have this problem when we confuse being denied a Giant Platform With Sponsors with Being Suppressed. As Linda Holmes of NPR wrote in 2010, "The First Amendment doesn't guarantee that speaking your mind will have no economic consequences. . . . Because the 'free' in that concept means 'free from government interference,' not 'free from consequences.' "
In this case, those consequences came in the form of an indefinite hiatus and a statement that A&E was "extremely disappointed." As though network officials expected anything different.
Mel Brooks' quip that "you're always a little disappointing in person because you can't be the edited essence of yourself" has never been truer than here. The Phil Robertson that 14 million viewers have gotten to know is a Phil Robertson with air quotes. It's the character "Phil Robertson," edited for content and formatted to fit this screen. It's A&E's character based around the statements and life of Phil Robertson, in keeping with A&E's mission. A&E means to tell us it had no idea he was capable of saying this? GQ's Magary sits down with him for a few hours and Robertson says all of this readily and with no hesitation, and the network that has been taping his life for years had no idea? What a run of luck A&E must have had that he wasn't interviewed until now.
Robertson has always been up-front about his faith, but clearly A&E has been putting at least a small and tactful bushel basket over his light to allow it to fit into more living rooms. "Phil Robertson" doesn't say that kind of thing out loud. Phil Robertson does. OUR Phil would never say a thing like that, A&E shouts. Of course not. It's the actor who's the problem!
The trouble with reality stars is they are hard to turn off. Deny them one pulpit, where they're edited, and other outlets spring up like hydra heads. There's plenty of free speech to go around -- and a big platform to go with it. You can take away an actor's job. But once someone's a star, you can't tell people to stop paying attention to him because he said something awful. He can only half-lose a job in which he plays himself. There may not be any more A&E cameras turned on him, but what about all the other cameras?
Alexandra Petri is a columnist for The Washington Post.