Robert B. Simpson: Speaking freely …

December 28, 2013 

As 2013 vanishes from the rear view mirror and 2014 comes barreling in, it's hard not to feel sad about the pain that was suffered all around the world in the past year, about the mistakes we made, and about missed opportunities. Of course, there are also some things to be happy about. Anthony Weiner dropped out of politics, one hopes permanently. The nonsense about a "war on Christmas" got, I thought, a little less air time than previously, so maybe, eventually, citizens of this land of the free will be able to refer to Christmas in any terms they choose.

I had one special blessing in 2013. I got through the year without watching even one minute of something called "Duck Dynasty." I don't have a lot of time to devote to television watching, and I prefer not to spend it watching reality shows, most of which seem incredibly unrealistic. As for "Duck Dynasty," from what I've seen about it in the news, I can pretty much get the same visual and sometimes audible effect by going to Walmart.

The furor over A&E television suspending the main character of the camouflage and long beard show may have helped to knock some of the "war on Christmas" silliness off the air, and if so, I'm grateful. On the other hand, it has caused me to grind down the fragile enamel of my aging teeth when I hear and read the outrage over what is variously described as an attack on Christians or an attack on freedom of speech. It is neither. It is the self-protective act of a business enterprise that does not want its reputation damaged by the acts or comments of an employee.

Whether A&E was reasonable or honorable or smart in its suspension of Phil Robertson is a fair question. Whether the organization had the right to suspend him is beyond question. As is the matter of his right to free speech. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees citizens protection from government control of speech, except in some special situations. The government, except for these few limitations, cannot muzzle me. But you, if I say things you don't like, can complain, disagree, take me to court, or punch me in the nose. I was free to speak. You were free to react. Your reactions may cost you, just as my disliked speech cost me. But my freedom of speech was not impaired. If you are my employer and I bad-mouth you or the company, or say something that makes the company look bad, you can bounce me right out the door. My right to free speech is not involved.

Some of us like to moan that we, as Christians, are under assault. Maybe we are, in the sense that the world at large has always been in opposition to the tenets of Christianity. That conflict comes with the territory. But when a figure in the public eye makes statements that are taken by many to be uncharitable and unnecessarily hurtful, the resulting clamor is, in my opinion, an attack on the speaker, not an attack on Christianity.

Some have argued that Robertson had every right, as a Christian, to express his judgment of his fellow citizens, because we are expected to spread Christianity. I would think, though, that not everyone who chooses to speak out and accuse their fellows is spreading what Jesus had in mind. I have also long believed that the way I live my life, which admittedly has been far from perfect so far, is much more effective than spouting my personal interpretation of how God is going to judge my fellow humans.

So as 2014 kicks in, I'll resolve to continue avoiding reality shows. And I'll make a wish for all those who are ready to judge others, that they remember what the Scripture says about doing this. And a wish that those ready to jump to defend them on the grounds of freedom of speech will first learn what that phrase actually means.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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