Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family featured in the unusual and wildly popular TV show “Duck Dynasty,” has started a controversy across the country. On Dec. 18, the television network A&E announced that the anti-gay statements Robertson made to GQ magazine were disappointing and that he would be suspended from the show “indefinitely.” The country went wild. Supporters of the program claim he had the constitutional right to express his religious and personal beliefs without being kicked off the show, while A&E supporters said the network had every right to suspend him. In fact, since A&E is a private enterprise and the “Duck Dynasty” family signed a contract with them, the network was within its legal rights to suspend him, despite the petitions flying around the web to boycott them.

Legal experts have confirmed that generally when people sign contracts with TV networks for a new show, a “morals” clause is included in the writing. Although the specifics of the Robertson contract aren’t known, there likely is a morals clause in his contract as a matter of general practice. If so, this would prohibit Phil Robertson and other members of the show from using any language or performing any actions that are “insulting or denigrating.” While that seems like a broad spectrum with a lot of gray area, these definitions are basically left up to the network to decide. In this case, A&E has determined that Robertson’s statements do not stand for what the television program wants to promote. Throughout the GQ article, Robertson compared homosexuality to bestiality and included homosexuals in a category with “adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers …” who are all denied access into heaven according to the Christian Bible.

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin of Alaska and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have both criticized A&E for being “intolerant” of Robertson’s religious beliefs, which they say are protected under the First Amendment. The politicians are not quite accurate in their citing of the Constitution, however, because the First Amendment only protects citizens from encroachment by the government. It is not likely that Robertson could find legal recourse due to any constitutional rights because his contract was signed with a private TV network under guidelines that he agreed to.

Others may say that A&E is discriminating against Robertson’s religious beliefs and his ability to express them in a free country, but this too would be hard to prove in court. According to Eugene Volokh, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles Law School, “It doesn’t sound like they were taking him off the show because they don’t like the fact that his message is religious; I think they don’t like the fact that his message is anti-gay … I imagine if an atheist on an A&E show said things that A&E thought disapproved of homosexuality, they would deal with it the same way.” In other words, Robertson would have a hard time convincing anyone in the legal system, a judge or a jury, that A&E was discriminating against his religion. The problem was that the network was upset with his anti-gay and thus offensive comments, which he couched in a religious pretext.

Considering that Robertson’s comments were on such a hot-button political issue, this story has sparked controversy and garnered a fair amount of media attention. Even though many people are invested in his comments and the ongoing countrywide debate about religion and homosexuality isn’t likely to be solved for a long time, this doesn’t mean that anything illegal happened. Americans are apt to quote the First Amendment with little knowledge of its limitations and requirements for application. Freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want, whenever you want with no consequences. In this situation, Phil Robertson signed a contract with the private, non-government television network A&E, and when he made comments in violation of his contract, they were within their legal rights to suspend him per the contract he signed. Just because Robertson is famous doesn’t mean he can say whatever he wants. As he is still connected with A&E, they “own” his words and have the ability to kick him off the show if his behavior is contrary to their morals.

Maura Levine is an LSA junior.

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