The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Duck and Roll

By Roy Gutterman, December 23, 2013

A&E TV image

A&E TV image

Another “celebrity” has put his foot in his mouth and is being punished for saying something that some people find offensive.  Phil Robertson, one of the guys from the “Duck Dynasty” show, made some homophobic comments in an interview and it has totally blown up.

Just to spread the wealth, he followed it up with some racist comments, too.

The A&E television network suspended him but the show will most likely go on. Now everyone from activists to Sarah Palin are chiming in. There have been social media protests and petitions both denouncing and supporting him.

Admittedly, I have never seen “Duck Dynasty” and I do not plan to.  As far as I can tell, from my tangential absorption of pop culture, it’s a show about guys in flannel who grow long beards and go hunting.  Maybe this is part of our problem.

The “Duck Dynasty” controversy raises two important questions: 1) should we be surprised that this guy harbors offensive beliefs? and 2) why do we care what he thinks in the first place?

The controversy also provides an important example of how we as a society deal with speech that offends. And it’s another lesson in the beauty of independent media and the hazards of our pop culture-driven society.

If we want to play the blame game, there is plenty of blame to go around, too. In our zeal to find entertainment (and in television executives’ desire to produce cheap entertainment) we catapult people with no real talent into prominent players in society. The list of reality television stars who speak solely to shock or offend is as long as the list of reality television shows.

This is not to say that bona fide entertainers are immune from foot-in-mouth disease.  From actors (recently Alec Baldwin) to athletes to politicians, the fastest way to the expressway of fame and riches seems to be saying outrageous or offensive things.

This formula can also backfire. Now that the “Duck Dynasty” guy is exposed for what he really is, the debate has begun.  The counter attack is on, and the content-starved 24-hour news behemoths and talk shows which thrust this guy into the spotlight are now filling time criticizing his offensive speech. There is almost a self-righteous indignation among television news reporters telling the world of his offensive and politically-incorrect beliefs. Yet, recently the networks were tripping over themselves to get the “Duck Dynasty” guys on their own shows.

In the long-run, this controversy does not rank up there with great debates about important public policy issues. It is an easy story to tell with colorful characters.

One of the great things about our independent media is its ability to decide what is news or entertainment. Even though the free market often drives this, we are also engaged in the marketplace of ideas.

As the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, the best test of truth is its power to compete in the marketplace of ideas.  He added that society confronts “imperfect knowledge” every day.

There seems to be more and more “imperfect knowledge” entering the marketplace every minute.  Some of us participate in the debate and some of us watch on the sidelines.  And then someone else does something outrageous and we all forget and move onto the next controversy.