When we think of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other civil liberties, we usually think of the way the government has violated or could potentially violate them. The Bill of Rights limits what the government can do and thus is an important safe guard of its citizens’ freedom. And yet, the government is not the only institution that can quench civil liberties, as we see in the Duck Dynasty controversy. Phil Robertson’s freedom of speech and his freedom of religion were punished not by the government but by the Arts & Entertainment Network, along with the corporations that sponsor his show.
Corporations are not restricted by the Bill of Rights. Nor is the more generalized “social pressure” that comes from cultural disapproval. But individuals who are silenced by corporations–which in some ways have more power than the government–are not free. Individuals whose religion is persecuted by the society–whether from mobs or cultural sanctions–are not free.
One commentator I heard on the Duck Dynasty matter said that Phil Robertson still has free speech. But he can expect consequences from what he says. To be sure, people can choose not to watch his show if they are so morally outraged by his disapproval of gay sex. But shouldn’t people have the right to make that decision? Uncle Phil presides over one of the most popular television shows in America. Let’s see if people stop watching. That would be fair. But instead, he was suspended and the show faces cancellation. While some think corporations are interested only in money, that is clearly not the case here. Corporations, like the people who run them, have values of their own.
Conservatives usually blame the government on everything, while liberals blame corporations, but surely both have a point. What might be done to protect individual rights from being violated by corporations or other private entitities?
Even conservatives would agree that a legitimate use of the law is to protect individuals from dangers to them in the private sector. In fact, consider the non-discriminatory language that most corporations are obliged to follow, that they will not discriminate on the grounds of race, color, religion, creed, gender, sexual preference, disability status, etc., etc. Doesn’t Uncle Phil have a case that he was unlawfully discriminated against on account of “creed,” a term that means “belief”?