Free speech: Phil Robertson vs Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris Perry

Free speech prevents governments from censuring their citizens for words they say or write. Modern jargon has broadened it to mean freedom from any consequences whatsoever for spoken or written words. However, in our jaded, cynical world, the application of this concept is often first filtered through a partisan lens.

Recently Phil Robertson, one of the stars of a reality show on A&E, said some things in a magazine interview that offended people. A&E decide to suspend him (but have since reversed). The public discourse, specifically the socially conservative quadrant, erupted, and a new front in the culture wars was launched. Some argued that what Robertson said wasn’t offensive, so his suspension was unwarranted.

Regardless of my personal opinion, this is at least a defensible position. A person may or may not find something offensive, regardless of the objective fact that it offended others, and so not see the need for disciplinary action. Many instead invoked Robertson’s free speech rights. This is an untenable position from any angle. No one was sanctioned by the government, so no rights were violated. However, A&E also has free speech rights, employer rights, and contract rights, which precious few conservatives stood up for at the time.

It became even more clear Monday how transparent some of these arguments were. On MSNBC, Melissa Harris Perry and her show’s panel made fun of a family portrait of Mitt Romney and all his grandchildren, including an adopted infant who happens to be black. Twitter was set ablaze. Within hours, Fox News hosts were questioning her ongoing employment, and the RNC’s Communications Director directly called for her suspension. I’m guessing these people had a different opinion about Phil Robertson’s situation. Previous examples of this disparate treatment include Martin Bashir and the Dixie Chicks.

Of course, not all conservatives wanted Harris-Perry fired. Many were able to temper their disgust with her remarks by supporting her right to a job, just like many liberals and libertarians didn’t want Phil Robertson fired (some just pointed out A&E’s right to do so).

The problem here is the seemingly innate tendency for some people to react in completely opposite ways based on the party affiliation of the person involved. Freedom of speech is great! The ability for employers to discipline or terminate employees for their conduct is great! Citizens engaging in a public dialogue about their rights is great!

Having that public dialogue be tainted by such base factional politics…not so great. Conservatives defended Phil Robertson because he is conservative. They subsequently called for Melissa Harris-Perry’s head because she is a progressive. Perhaps in the new year we can all try to be a little more intellectually honest in our debates. The world will be a much better place.

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