Will the show go on without Phil?
A letter posted online by the Robertson family raises uncertainty about the future of the wildly popular television show “Duck Dynasty,” after the A&E cable channel put family patriarch Phil Robertson on an indefinite hiatus over comments he made in an interview in the January issue of GQ magazine.
The reality cable television star characterized gays as sinners and black people as happy, crooning cotton-picking laborers before the civil rights movement.
“The family has spent much time in prayer since learning of A&E’s decision,” says the letter posted Thursday night on the website for the family’s Duck Commander store in West Monroe. “We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right. We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of ‘Duck Dynasty.’”
A&E officials did not respond Friday to messages seeking comment.
USA Today reported that filming of Season 5, set to debut Jan. 15, has finished and features Robertson in 10 episodes. The Season 4 debut pulled in 11.8 million viewers in August, setting a record for the cable channel, the newspaper reported.
Since news of Robertson’s suspension broke, fans, state officials and Republican leaders have spoken up in defense of his right to share his religious views, with some casting it as a matter of free speech rights under the First Amendment.
However, Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said Robertson’s First Amendment rights were not violated by A&E when they suspended him because of his comments.
She said the amendment applies only when the government gets involved to prevent a person from expressing his views and that wasn’t the case with Robertson, who was disciplined by his employer.
“He said something that his employer didn’t want him to have said, and so his employer did what employers do: They fired him,” Esman said.
On Robertson’s Facebook page, thousands of fans offered support for the family and demanded A&E apologize for the treatment of the elder Robertson.
“It don’t matter what channel Duck Dynasty comes on the fans will still watch it,” fan Matt Robison from Oklahoma wrote on Robertson’s Facebook page Friday afternoon.
He continued, “I gotta say A&E will be losing more than anyone in this situation, and you can’t expect a christian family to change and not stick to the word of God just because of the ‘LAW.’ Phil Robertson ‘The Duck Commander’ and his Family have my support as a christian and as a person.”
Facebook groups like “We Stand With Phil,” “Boycott A&E TV” and “Bring Back Phil Robertson” have sprouted up since announcement of the suspension, garnering hundreds of thousands of “likes.”
Fans of the show and the family also took to A&E’s official Facebook page to vent their anger about the decision to suspend Robertson, even on posts about other shows.
A&E is owned in a 50-50 venture by the Hearst Corp. and ABC.
“We want to thank all of you for your prayers and support,” the Robertson family said in the letter. “We want you to know that first and foremost we are a family rooted in our faith in God and our belief that the Bible is His word.”
Much of the initial controversy surrounding the article focused on Robertson lumping “homosexual offenders” in the same godless category as adulterers, male prostitutes, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers. He also graphically described homosexual acts.
In explicit terms that would make an anatomy professor blush, Robertson professed to not understand a man’s desire for another man. He also embraced what he called eternal health care instead of “insurance schemes.”
Then Friday, videos popped up online in which Robertson, speaking at a Pottstown, Pa., church supper in 2010, called homosexuals “God-haters” and said they are heartless, faithless and senseless.
“While some of Phil’s unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible,” the family’s letter says. “Phil is a Godly man who follows what the Bible says are the greatest commandments: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Phil would never incite or encourage hate.”
Not receiving as much attention was what Robertson had to say about his upbringing in the era before the civil rights movement. He said he hoed cotton alongside black people in the fields and never saw any mistreatment.
“They’re singing and happy,” he said.
“I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’— not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues,” Robertson said.
Despite the uproar, Esman, the Louisiana ACLU’s executive director, stressed that Robertson’s rights under the First Amendment were not violated.
“All the talk about the First Amendment is misplaced,” she said. “Yes, he has First Amendment rights to say what he said, but the First Amendment applies only to the government and the government has not gotten involved.”
She added, “If he were arrested for that, if he were fined for that by a government agency, then yes, his First Amendment rights would have been implicated, but he wasn’t, so they weren’t.”