Free Speech, Hypocrisy, and Cowardice
On Sunday, January 5, the New York Times ran a front-page article entitled “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns” by Ravi Somaiya. It told the story of Dick Metcalf, a gun enthusiast and writer who had written a long-running column for Guns & Ammo magazine and also hosted a television show that was co-produced by the magazine. In October, Mr. Metcalf wrote a column for Guns & Ammo (which the magazine had seen and approved before publishing) in which he argued that some small restrictions on gun ownership were both constitutional and desirable. The repercussions were both swift and severe for Mr. Metcalf: he was fired by Guns & Ammo from both the television show and the magazine after complaints about the article came in from both readers and advertisers (i.e. arms manufacturers).
At the outset, I want to make something clear: this is not a 1st Amendment case. Mr. Metcalf’s 1st Amendment rights are not at issue in this situation. The government has taken no action against him, and he can continue to say and write whatever he wants on this, or any other subject. Now, I do think it is an absolute shame that Guns & Ammo should get rid of Mr. Metcalf for committing the “crime” of trying to bring just a smidgen of common sense to the gun control debate from the pro-gun side. And I think it shows you just how extreme the pro-gun side has become, if they would fire a long-time gun-rights defender for suggesting that perhaps it would be a good thing for gun owners to compromise just a little bit on this issue. But let’s be clear here: nobody has a Constitutional right to have a column in a particular magazine, and it certainly appears from the facts as stated in the Times piece that Guns & Ammo acted within its rights to terminate Mr. Metcalf.
All of which brings us around to the Phil Robertson/”Duck Dynasty” imbroglio. As many will recall, Mr. Robertson, a star of the A&E Network show “Duck Dynasty” was quoted in GQ Magazine making derogatory statements about homosexuals and (to my sensibilities, anyway) offensive remarks about the state of African-Americans in the Jim Crow south. (He also was subsequently quoted making truly creepy remarks about the advantages of grown men marrying 15 or 16 year old girls, but that’s another issue). After the GQ statements went viral, as such things are wont to do in the internet age, A&E took some action against Mr. Robertson, but as of this writing it’s a bit unclear exactly what that action (which was initially reported as a suspension from the show) might finally turn out to be.
Here’s the thing: when A&E first announced plans to take some action against Mr. Robertson for his comments, a number of right-wing politician/pundits came rushing to his defense on 1st Amendment/Free Speech grounds. These know-nothings included the usual suspects: Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and the Fox News crew etc… To begin with, these great lovers of the U.S. Constitution obviously don’t understand that great document. No government action was taken against Mr. Robertson and he has no Constitutionally protected right to have a TV show on A&E, and so this is simply not a Constitutional matter. But there are several other issues in play here. Why aren’t these great defenders of free speech jumping to Mr. Metcalf’s defense? For that matter, where were they when Bill Maher got fired from his show on ABC for comments he made after 9/11, or when country radio stations refused to play the music of the Dixie Chicks after they made comments critical of President Bush and the Iraq war? If Phil Robertson has a Constitutional right to say what he wants and still keep his TV show, why doesn’t Dick Metcalf have that same right? A real Constitutional/Free Speech proponent defends all speech, not just speech that s/he agrees with. I recently attended a lecture by Norman Dorsen, Past President of the American Civil Liberties Union and Professor of Law as NYU Law School, who reminded the audience that the ACLU is not a liberal advocacy group; it defends the constitutional rights of all, be they liberal or conservative, mainstream or radical. So if Palin, Jindal, Beck, Hannity et al are so concerned with the free speech rights of Phil Robertson, which they mistakenly believe A&E violated, why aren’t they concerned with Dick Metcalf’s free speech rights as well, even if mistakenly so?
Part of the answer is that these people and their ilk are hypocrites who only defend the rights of people they agree with. That much is obvious. But if we dig a little deeper here, we see that these people are not only hypocrites, they are also cowards. Follow the progression: they only defend the so-called “free speech” rights of fellow right-wingers; in other words, people with whom they agree. If that were not the case, and they defended all speech on Constitutional principles, they would be out there defending Dick Metcalf right now, but they’re not. So it is therefore logical to believe that they agree with Robertson’s comments in GQ regarding gay people and all those happy African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. (I’ll give them a pass on the marrying 15 year olds statements as they did not become public until after the GQ article came out). But they only defend Robertson on supposed free-speech grounds; they don’t come out and say that they actually agree with him substantively. Why not? Because even troglodytes like Palin, Beck and Hannity know that saying such things will make them look bad in today’s world. But logic dictates that they must agree with Robertson’s statements because, as I showed above, they only defend the “free-speech rights” of people with whom they agree. So when someone like Robertson makes odious comments with which they actually agree, and comes under fire for making those comments, they will (erroneously) defend that person on ill-placed 1st Amendment grounds because they know that to defend such comments on substantive grounds, even though they agree with them, will make them look bad.
How hypocritical. How cowardly.