In a country that proudly proclaims to be the “land of the free,” it is something of a joke that the nation is even discussing one individual’s expression of his personal views and, perhaps, the entire Duck Dynasty issue should be put in perspective. The enormously popular show faces an uncertain future as the patriarch of its starring family faces a suspension. This debacle is not about gay rights, however; neither is it about the Bible or free speech. This is about whether or not Americans will allow the most basic principle of the United States Constitution to be abandoned in order to coddle one vocal minority.
When the Constitution is looked at as a whole – resisting the common temptation to get bogged down in analyzing every word and phrase – the overall principle becomes clear: The entire purpose of the document is not the distribution of rights or powers, but a legal framework to guarantee that no one individual can have their rights infringed upon by any government.
This, then, is the first point to remember: The Constitution does not grant any rights, it preserves them; protects them; guarantees them. A look at any of the 10 Amendments that make up the Bill of Rights confirms this: The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Here, Congress is prevented from repressing one’s right to worship by passing any law that promotes one religion over another; it is prevented from denying an individual their right to free speech and the right of individuals to assemble; it is prevented from obstructing freedom of the press and, in the last clause, it is prevented from treating individuals unjustly by allowing citizens the opportunity to petition for redress. There are no rights granted here; this is entirely about preventing Congress from infringing upon the natural rights of any individual within a civilized society.
The Second Amendment is similarly worded; it does not grant to the people the right to keep and bear arms, for that is a natural right and one which the people always had. Rather, the Second Amendment specifically prevents the government – any government; federal, state and local – infringing upon that right.
All Amendments in the Bill of Rights are similarly constructed; they prevent the infringement of the rights of the individual by government – but not by any other individual. The Constitution itself has the same purpose; it defines the structure of government and lays down the rules by which that government operates with the specific intent that checks and balances are maintained to prevent a concentration of power, which the Founding Fathers knew would, inevitably, lead to tyranny.
What, then, has this to do with Duck Dynasty, free speech and LGBT rights?
It is a matter of taking the intended perspective: The only institution that is restricted by the articles of Constitution and the Bill of Rights is that of government. Nether private businesses, nor special interest citizens’ groups, nor individuals are legally bound by anything in the Constitution. A private business is legally allowed to discriminate; if the owner of a business chooses to refuse to hire gays, heterosexuals, blacks, whites, women, men, Hispanics, Chinese, the disabled or, indeed, the able-bodied, they are completely entitled to do so, unless the state in which they operate has passed relevant anti-discrimination laws – laws which, themselves, infringe upon the individual right to choose. The federal government has no Constitutional right to pass such laws.
There is nothing in the document, or its Amendments, that prevents a private citizen or business entity from practicing discrimination in hiring. Similarly, the Constitution does not confer upon the federal government the right to pass laws which govern how any particular group or demographic is treated by any other.
If a private business chooses not to hire an individual based upon sexual orientation, that business harms only themselves, since the individual in question may be the best candidate for the position. That business, however, is exercising a right with which no government has the authority to interfere.
By the same token, the federal government has no right to pass any law that defines what marriage is and neither does it have the right to pass any law that infringes upon the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender individuals.
All this means that the A&E network was not, in reality, infringing upon Phil Robertson’s freedom of speech when it took the decision to suspend him. Within the bounds of any contract between the two parties, the network has the right to suspend or fire any employee – or refuse to do business with anyone – for whatever reason they choose.
Similarly, Mr. Robertson has not infringed upon, or suppressed, anybody’s rights by expressing his personal opinions and preferences. He merely exercised a right that is his by default and which is legally protected. The LGBT community, similarly, is not bound by the Constitution and is allowed to discriminate against anyone they wish – which, of course, they frequently do. LGBT activists clearly believe that those who disapprove of their lifestyle and sexual preference should not be allowed to express – or even think – such opinions. They are wrong, however; they have no power to shut down their opponents, although they do, in fact, have the right to try. This respect for rights, however, goes both ways; there is nothing that prevents any individual, business or special interest group from expressing disapproval of same-sex relations or even of refusing to employ, or do business with, gays, lesbians or anyone else.
The Constitution does not outlaw discrimination; neither does it allow government to pass laws that prevent discrimination. The moment a government passes a law that protects any one section of society from criticism, it is – by definition – infringing upon the free-speech rights of those who would criticize. The moment a government passes a law that prevents a business from operating a hiring policy which excludes certain groups, it is infringing upon the rights of the business owner to run their own in business in the manner they see fit and in accordance with their personal views. Private companies or organizations do have the right to operate by such rules. The A&E network, therefore, is completely within its rights, regarding whatever decision it makes over the Duck Dynasty issue.
LGBT activists appear to have no interest in fairness and individual rights, however; they are demanding that a double standard be applied. Whilst on the one hand they argue, not unreasonably, that – in the interests of diversity and tolerance – they be treated as equal and be afforded the same rights as everyone else, they are, on the other hand, demanding that those who disapprove of their lifestyle be silenced; thereby, deliberately disregarding all principles of diversity and tolerance.
As a society, Americans have to learn to accept that the principle of free speech extends to everyone, regardless of opinions or prejudices. No speech, however hateful, actually infringes upon anybody’s right; only actions do so. The lines between what is considered socially acceptable and what is actually illegal have become blurred.
Libertarianism is based upon the principle so eloquently summarized by Thomas Jefferson, commenting on religion:
It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Taken in its proper and intended perspective, the statement clearly makes the point that if no action is taken to physically harm – or physically take from – any individual, then no injury has been done. The free speech issue which has been highlighted by the Duck Dynasty situation needs to be studied from that perspective. The only real harm that will result from this entire episode is to the profits of the A&E network; they have, essentially, picked their own pocket.
If Jefferson’s principle was one by which all Americans lived, then society would find a much greater degree of harmony. It profits no-one to be constantly consumed by hatred or indignity. One is neither injured nor stolen from when one faces criticism – nor when one lives side-by-side with those who practice a lifestyle of which one disapproves. The LGBT community – along with their critics – would do well to remember this.
Editorial by Graham J Noble