Freedom of Speech: True and False
By David Henderson
But, as a number of commentators (including conservatives) have pointed out, the First Amendment is irrelevant to the Duck Dynasty imbroglio for a very different reason. While constitutional protections for speech certainly extend to bigots, they protect only against government actions, not sanctions by employers. There is no inalienable right to be on A&E.
This is from Cathy Young, “‘Duck Dynasty’ Pits Free Speech Against Shifting Cultural Taboos,” December 26.
That’s a nice statement of the issue. If A&E did the extreme thing and took “Duck Dynasty” off the air, there would be no violation of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech means simply that the government cannot use force against you for speaking. If a private person used force against you for speaking, we probably would not call it a violation of freedom of speech: we would call it assault.
So when various social conservatives attack A&E for violating the freedom of speech of the participants on “Duck Dynasty,” they’re barking up the wrong tree.
So far, so good. But then Ms. Young goes off the rails. She writes:
Take the American Family Association, which charges that A&E “believes in freedom of speech…only if it is the speech content with which they agree.” But so does the AFA: boycotts directed against “immoral”–and, specifically, gay-friendly–content have been practically its bread and butter. In 1997, the group fought to stop ABC from having the lead on “Ellen” come out as a lesbian. L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, another vocal critic of the alleged Duck Dynasty persecution, supported both the “Ellen” boycott (the MRC took out a full-page ad in Variety condemning the “blatant attempt by Disney, ABC and ‘Ellen’ to promote homosexuality to America’s families”) and that of “Nothing Sacred,” a 1997-1998 ABC show that angered conservative Catholics by portraying a priest who struggled with his faith and questioned Church teachings on sexuality.
It’s possible that the American Family Association believes in freedom of speech only if it agrees with the content. But then why didn’t Ms. Young give us any evidence for that? This would have been the paragraph in which to present that evidence. The only evidence she points to is boycotts, that is, people organizing a voluntary action, namely, a group decision not to buy. There’s no use of force and there’s no advocacy of the use of force. Now, if, for instance, the AFA had gone to the FCC to try to get that government agency to prohibit ABC from making its choices on the “Ellen” show, that would have been evidence that the AFA does not support freedom of speech.
Note what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that the AFA hasn’t advocated censorship. I am saying that Ms. Young, while claiming that AFA is against freedom of speech, gives zero evidence for it.
Ms. Young also writes:
Kissel believes that if a private employer’s action “serves to shut out a voice that otherwise would have been heard, this choice is morally suspect.” Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty makes a similar argument: while censuring unpopular speech through social ostracism and economic boycott may not be un-libertarian, it’s deeply illiberal and contrary to the spirit of tolerance that makes society flourish.
I disagree with Kissel, Doherty, and, presumably, Young. Whether it’s morally suspect depends on the voice that is shut out. What if an employer had an employee who came to work with a Hitler or Mao t-shirt and pushed Naziism or Communism on customers. I would certainly want to fire that employee. Kissel, Doherty, Young, and I all agree that the employee’s freedom of speech isn’t violated. But, contrary to them, I don’t see anything “morally suspect,” “deeply illiberal,” or “contrary to the spirit of tolerance” in that action.