Rights and Wrongs (Robert Coon On Politics)

When the controversy began over comments made by "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson in an interview with GQ last month, it set off a full-fledged media and social media firestorm. Reaction to Robertson’s comments flooded social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, from both supporters and critics, and quickly became the topic of choice for cable news shows, talk radio and pundits everywhere.

Supporters were quick to affirm Robertson’s right to free speech, and rightly so, as we all know that free speech isn’t conditional based on one’s particular opinion. But when A&E Television Networks, which airs "Duck Dynasty," decided to suspend Robertson, the debate became less about what Robertson said and more about the perceived violation of his constitutional rights.

Fueling the fire were a number of political headline seekers – including rumored 2016 presidential hopefuls like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-Louisiana – who saw the Robertson controversy as an opportunity to come to Robertson’s rescue while scoring valuable political points. They criticized A&E for suspending Robertson, an injustice in their view, based on Robertson’s "religious liberty," "free speech" and the "First Amendment."  

Ironically, by so harshly condemning A&E for its decision to suspend Robertson, these critics were undercutting some of the same fundamental rights that they themselves were passionately advocating to uphold.

That’s because Robertson’s right to free speech – to which he’s most certainly entitled – was never violated, as the First Amendment protects our speech from government interference. And in fact it was A&E’s right, as Robertson’s employer, to suspend him if the executives there decided to do so.

One of the things most apparent to me in the aftermath of this controversy is how common it is for people to rally around and support the rights of an individual, while overlooking, glossing over or diminishing the rights of businesses. As a result, businesses – and business owners – are at a disadvantage when it comes to exercising or defending their fundamental rights, whether in the court of public opinion, a court of law or with policymakers.

Take, for example, the issue of whether licensed gun owners should have the right to bring a firearm onto their employer’s private property without the employer’s permission. Legislation to this effect has been adopted in numerous states and was introduced (but not approved) in the most recent session of the Arkansas General Assembly. The National Rifle Association views this as an extension of a person's Second Amendment rights. And many would agree. 

But for businesses, this particular issue raises the question of whether the rights of an individual infringe on the private property rights of the business. Would we similarly force homeowners to relinquish this type of control over their private property? If not, why should private businesses be treated differently?  

And what about free speech? While support for the rights of individuals to advocate their political views in this country is universal, the public views similar rights for businesses in a different light.  There’s still a great deal of public division over the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the "Citizens United" case, which found that "the Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity," opening the door for unlimited independent political spending by corporations, labor unions and associations. And while as a society, we would consider efforts to curb, silence or restrict an individual’s political speech as a violation of their constitutional rights, it wasn’t until the "Citizens United" decision that businesses, and ultimately business owners, were assured the same freedoms.

At the end of the day, our nation is one that inherently values the rights of the individual – and it should. But let's not be so quick to discount the rights of businesses, which have been of fundamental importance to this country since its inception. For it was a combination of oppressive taxes, punitive trade restrictions and property rights violations against both individuals and businesses that led to the original tea party movement – the Boston Tea Party – and subsequently to our birth as a nation. 

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group (IMG), a public relations, public opinion, and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)