Justine Sacco and Phil Robertson Learn How This Free Speech Thing Really Works

Justine Sacco and Phil Robertson teach us Freedom of Speech is not freedom from consequence…

The Internet erupted when A&E Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s GQ Magazine interview was published. In it, he made some disturbing comments. He condemned homosexuality as sinful and compared the lifestyle to bestiality. In addition to being an armchair theologian, Robertson also seems to be a revisionist historian. He also claimed that the African-Americans he interacted with were content with their circumstances in the Jim Crow South, “pre-welfare and “pre-entitlements.” Because, who more qualified to speak on the behalf of the African-American experience in the Jim Crow South than he? 

Duck Dynasty is one of A&E’s most popular shows. As a result of those comments, A&E decided to suspend Robertson from the show indefinitely. That’s when the proverbial -ish hit the fan, causing a debate about Freedom of Speech, of all things oh, with a dash of a discussion on homophobia with a pinch of racism, for good measure.  Many Christian conservatives, fans of the show and Free Speech “advocates” decried Robertson’s suspension, calling it a violation of his First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the rest of us were talking about Robertson’s homophobia and racism.

Robertson’s comments aren’t unlike any we’ve heard before, but thanks to social media, both the news of his comments and involuntary hiatus are more pervasive than without these platforms. Social media acts as water-cooler of sorts, allowing all of us to have an opinion – whether or not it’s solicited, which keeps conversations and debates surrounding issues like these brewing.

But let’s talk about this Freedom of Speech thing, shall we? It seems like the First Amendment is used as a way to excuse or justify polarizing, marginalizing comments, or those made in poor taste. Free speech advocates do have one thing right: it is true that as citizens in these United States, we all have a right to speak our piece. Yet, free speech advocates should also understand  those same “rights” are hardly ever free from consequences. This, especially when we’re talking about big media corporations looking to minimize risk to their bottom lines and the unforgiving media space.

But one thing I’m not hearing a lot of discussion about is: how may have A&E come to their decision, and so quickly? Of course homophobia (and in some instances, racism) are becoming more intolerable positions, but that’s not it. With just about anything, part of the answer lies in tracing the money. A&E is a network that answers to two huge media corporations: Hearst Corp. and Disney-ABC Television group. And, I’m willing to wager all that is in my bank account the network considered the loss of ad revenue as a result of Robertson’s comments, decided it wasn’t worth ignoring and suspended him indefinitely. Those offended parties are also parties who are consumers. It’s not just about the LGBTQ or minority “agenda” being served. Television has to generate revenue. If it doesn’t make dollars, it won’t make sense. A&E didn’t want the headache of trying to balance a VERY popular television show with what’s becoming an increasingly unpopular position in this society (homophobia). Consider the money (or potential for making money) and you’ll find that other networks (save TBN) would have likely made a similar decision. So, while Robertson had every right to express his thoughts on homosexuality, A&E also had every right to suspend him because of said thoughts.

It’s now being reported that the Robertson clan (no pun intended)  are strongly considering leaving the show, which would likely end the show’s successful run.

Just as we were heatedly debating Robertson’s suspension, a PR executive by the name of Justine Sacco, who works (worked?) for IAC (a huge internet company with over 50 brands including OKCupid and TicketMaster) created another internet PR disaster windstorm. Sacco recently came under fire for her controversial tweet while on a flight to Africa that read as follows:

Justine Sacco's Tweet
Justine Sacco’s Tweet

In typical internet fashion, the tweet went viral. In a matter of hours, Sacco’s Twitter mentions were in shambles and a hashtag was created mocking and critiquing her tone-deaf, insensitive statement (#HasJustineLandedYet). Twitter goons tracked Sacco’s flight from London, conducted a countdown and waited for the “eagle to land” – where she would inevitably find thousands of responses to her statement (and maybe even a pink slip).  A schadenfreude on steroids.

Before Justine Sacco could land in Africa, the New York Times was covering her tweet
Before Justine Sacco could land in Africa, the New York Times was covering her tweet

The story gained so much traction, that IAC’s operator, Barry Diller issued a statement, attempting to distance the company from Sacco’s remarks. The story was featured in the New York Times – all before Sacco could reach her destination. As they say, “it ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun,” and Sacco surely must be reeling from what could only be described as light-hearted lapse in judgement, at best. Yet, if anyone should have known better, it should have been her, which makes me question just how she got the gig at IAC in the first place. As a PR exec, Sacco’s job is to help craft and protect the image of her company, but because of comment(s) made on her personal social media account, she did the exact opposite.

And, while we’re talking Free Speech rights here, we can all just about agree that Sacco had the right to her remarks – whether or not they were meant to be humorous quips. Still, free speech advocates also have to remember that, when statements are offered up for public consumption (especially those posted on social media spaces), audiences have the right to question and critique said statements…aaand companies have the right to rid themselves of you. That’s no rights violation. That’s business. That’s how good ole American capitalism works.

Twitter meme #HasJustineLandedYet went viral
Twitter meme #HasJustineLandedYet went viral

I think it’s safe to say that whether you agree with the responses, Phil Robertson and Justine Sacco are two people who have learned this week, that freedom of speech does not absolve one from the freedom from consequence.

I’ve written before about the power of hashtags as tools of power and resistance, but these two particular stories reach beyond mere humorous hashtags and memes. It appears that the tide may be shifting. No longer are homophobic, racist, and other exclusionary statements and ideologies acceptable to the larger public. Even marginalized communities (#BlackTwitter, anyone?) have a voice, and they are using it loudly. It’s like an intolerance for discrimination and bigotry are starting to outweigh the tolerance for those things. Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, privileged positions no longer get a silent pass. People are calling out things like homophobia, white supremacy, and other forms of exclusion on a larger scale, and I’m just crazy enough to believe that world may be changing because of it.

Says it all

But, it’s not enough to create viral hashtags and memes mocking ignorance. These two stories are glaring reminders that while demographics and ideologies are changing, similar change is happening too slowly where it matters. Media executives in the C-suites of these companies offering us fodder are still overwhelmingly homogenous. That means there aren’t enough people with diverse lived experiences and diverse worldviews making important decisions about the things that entertain and inform us. It’s being reflected in the foolishness we see (ie: Justine Sacco’s tweets), hear, and have to call out consistently. It’s high time companies start vetting people from diverse demographics, or pay the price big time: with continued PR disasters and lost revenue.

What do you think of the Phil Robertson debacle? Should he have been suspended? What about Justine Sacco? Should she get fired for her Twitter comments?


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