The biggest story so far surrounding this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is the announcement that Phil Robertson, the controversial star of the hit A&E show Duck Dynasty, will receive the second annual Andrew Breitbart First Amendment Award.
No matter how much new buzz the announcement brings CPAC, the decision betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how free speech works, and where the future of nationally competitive conservatism lies.
At the end of 2013, Robertson was briefly suspended by the network over remarks he made in a GQ interview calling homosexuality sinful and comparing it to bestiality. At the time, his suspension sparked a culture war flare-up between gay rights supporters and social conservatives, who felt Robertson’s freedom of speech was being suppressed.
However, the Duck Dynasty flap (pun intended) was a dispute within a private organization well within its rights to take the action it did. A&E had the authority to suspend Robertson as soon as he voluntarily signed the contract for the show, no how it handled the controversy afterwards.
Had the government taken Duck Dynasty off the air, I’d be up in arms, even as a member of the very LGBT community he marginalized. But that is not what happened here.
The First Amendment protects Americans from government censorship. A network’s decision to craft the messages it broadcasts is itself an exercise of free speech.
And let’s not forget that A&E’s decision to reinstate Robertson after vociferous protests proves that the First Amendment was as healthy as ever. The government didn’t force anyone to do anything here.
Just as many argue that evangelical Christian bakers should not be forced to make wedding cakes for marriages they oppose, consistency demands that neither should a private television network be forced to air opinions it doesn’t want to promote. Freedom of speech cuts both ways, and conservatives who truly care about promoting the values of the Founding Fathers will defend it regardless of its popularity.
Cashing in by awarding this accolade to a culture warrior representing conservatives’ weakest national issue is worse than bad politics. It’s mortgaging the movement’s future.
According to a recent Reason-Rupe report, seven in 10 millennials favor legalizing same-sex marriage, including 54 percent of Republicans. Revealingly, 45 percent said they would not vote for a candidate who opposes same-sex marriage, even if they agree with the candidate on other issues.
More pressingly for 2016, Gallup reports that nearly 60 percent of political independents support same-sex marriage, a trend that’s only increasing with time.
CPAC has a heinously dismal track record welcoming gay conservative groups like GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans, which continues this year. This week’s announcement does the conference no favors in improving its image to the mainstream. Its organizers open themselves to charges of bigotry and homophobia by honoring people like Phil Robertson.
The paradox is that with all the costs honoring Robertson brings, CPAC has far better exemplars of the principles of the First Amendment to choose from.
At last week’s International Students for Liberty Conference, Honduran university student Jorge Colindres spoke about the struggles that his campus group, EsLibertad, faced in November when Marxist students attempted to violently take over their university. Jorge and the other EsLibertad members reacted by organizing peaceful protests during an assembly vote to ratify the shutdown.
Despite being physically threatened and insulted with ignorant slurs like “terrorist” and “fascist,” Jorge and his friends persevered and continued to make their opposition heard. In the end, they were victorious, winning a historic vote to keep their school open.
Colindres’ fight to keep a forum for the free flow of ideas open in the face of detractors who threatened to literally silence him is a more courageous exercise of the First Amendment than Phil Robertson’s archaic comments will ever be.
CPAC should put things in perspective, award a more deserving candidate next year, and stop shooting themselves in the foot.