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Column: First Amendment won’t protect people from own choice of words


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INDIANAPOLIS – Bless “Duck Dynasty” and Justine Sacco.

Together, they’ve created an opportunity for an important civic education lesson.

For those of you who don’t know what the twin furors over “Duck Dynasty” and Sacco are — presumably because you have been wasting your time focusing on things that matter — allow me to explain.

“Duck Dynasty” is a reality show airing on A&E about a Louisiana family named Robertson that has made a fortune, which likely has been enhanced by the show, by making duck calls and other products for duck hunters. The show celebrates the Robertson family’s success and decidedly evangelical Christian faith.

To help promote the show, Phil Robertson sat for an interview with GQ magazine. In the interview, Robertson made comments that struck many readers as homophobic. Those offenders took to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to express their outrage.

The story crossed over to mainstream media and, pretty quickly, A&E decided to suspend Robertson from the show.

Robertson, his family and his fans tried to cast him as a martyr for the First Amendment.

He isn’t, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

While the “Duck Dynasty” controversy was raging, Sacco, director of corporate communications for media giant IAC, issued a tweet before boarding a plane.

“Going to Africa.

Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white,” Sacco tweeted.

Once again, Twitter exploded. Tweets flew back and forth exploring, in 140 or fewer characters, whether Sacco was more insensitive to issues of race or the global AIDS crisis. On whichever side Twitter users landed, they were outraged.

When Sacco landed in South Africa, she in short order lost her job. Even an abject apology from her didn’t stop Sacco from being established as a new poster child for cultural cluelessness.

And, again, her defenders tried to depict her fall as an assault on her First Amendment rights.

Again, they were wrong.

The First Amendment protects us from government suppression of our right to express ourselves, whether in speech, writing or art. It doesn’t protect us from having someone get angry or offended by something we have said or written.

No government entity — and, for that matter, no one I know of — has tried to prevent Robertson or Sacco from saying what either believes. No one has said that they can’t stand on a street corner to speak their minds, preach in the church or post something on the blog of their choice.

If someone did try to prevent either Sacco or Robertson from doing any of those things, I — as a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and true believer when it comes to the First Amendment — would line up with Sacco and Robertson to prevent their rights from being violated.

But those rights weren’t violated here.

What happened was that two private companies decided that Robertson’s and Sacco’s comments were likely to drive away customers, so the companies opted to put some distance between them and those offensive comments.

It wasn’t a constitutional question in either case. In each situation, it was a business decision.

(And it is worth noting that the folks who complain that Robertson’s and Sacco’s views are being demeaned seem not to have realized that Robertson and Sacco themselves were doing some demeaning.)

The First Amendment offers us many protections. Perhaps the most basic of those protections is the one that allows — no, demands — that we be the keepers of our

own consciences.

The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee that we never will upset anyone else by standing up for what we believe. It also doesn’t guarantee that we never will suffer professional consequences for saying something that angers people — just ask the Dixie Chicks about that — or that we won’t suffer social ostracism for offending others.

What the First Amendment does guarantee is that the decision about what to believe or where to make a stand in defense of those beliefs is ours — and ours alone.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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