Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States has been hearing arguments on whether the state of Massachusetts forces abortion protesters (whether pro-choice or pro-life) to stand too far away from abortion clinics. The justices questioned whether the 35 feet mandated by Massachusetts was too far–it could be potentially infringing on protesters’ First Amendment rights, specifically freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is one of the most sacred rights in the United States, and citizens are brought up with a reverence for freedom of speech. Unfortunately, this reverence often translates to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the right is.
As seen in the above case, the government of the United States must respect freedom of speech when it comes to their citizens–the government has a right to curb freedom of speech to some extent, but only to protect citizens from other problems. Freedom of speech, otherwise, is too sacred of a right to infringe upon.
Often, however, the media and people, when saying something controversial and being punished for it in some way, say “I have the right to freedom of speech”. However, often the people who are being punished are not being punished by the government, but by private enterprises.
The most recent example would be Phil Robertson, star of the reality show “Duck Dynasty”, who was removed temporarily from the show after he stated that homosexuality was merely the beginning to a line of worse sins, and those sinners would not “inherit the kingdom of God”, among other controversial statements. Immediately, a backlash against his comments began, and the company that owned “Duck Dynasty”, A&E, suspended Robertson. The company faced a backlash for Robertson’s suspension, with notable personalities such as Sean Hannity asking why couldn’t there be a debate about gay marriage. Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate, tweeted “Free speech is endangered species; those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all”.
However, A&E is well within its rights to suspend Phil Robertson for any opinion he has–they could have suspended him for waving a rainbow flag and shouting how much he loved being gay. As a private organization, A&E has the right to suspend their employees for not upholding the image that A&E wished to promote; only the government would have to be questioned over its infringement of the right to free speech, since the Constitution applies to the federal government (and through Supreme Court cases, down to the state and local governments)
Perhaps what people should be more concerned about is the trend for companies to censor their employees in this way–the fact that A&E felt that Phil Robertson’s comments were too controversial to allow him to stay on the air is indicative of A&E’s beliefs of which direction the country is going. However, at the same time, Phil Robertson was “suspended indefinitely” but returned within weeks to the air. Both of these events are hints at the mood of the country in regards to gay marriage and the supposed “right to free speech” that even private companies are supposed to protect.