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Free Speech Doesn't Mean You're Free From Public Backlash

04/06/2015 11:27 EDT | Updated 06/06/2015 05:59 EDT
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Last week an Indiana pizzeria was hit with massive protests when a someone at the establishment said that, although they'd serve gay customers, they'd refuse to cater a gay wedding. Pandemonium ensued and mere days later that simple interview has blown up into a huge media frenzy.

According to the owners of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, the backlash against their statement was instant and furious. People called and harassed them. They received all kinds of threats and online attacks. One day later, Memories Pizza announced it would be closing until the backlash died down.

Faster than you can say "Chick-fil-A," the support came flooding in. A crowdfunding campaign was started and, days later, nearly a million dollars was raised by people cheering what they called a defense of free speech. Looking at the actual crowdfunding site, the comments read like a hodgepodge of harmless samaritans and wacky bigots alike. What all of these contributors had in common, however, was their insistence that they believe in protecting "Free Speech"; that no business should suffer financial ruin because of political opinion.

The Dixie Chicks are owed an apology.

In 2003, The Dixie Chicks enraged much of their own fan base when they publicly criticized President Bush while they were performing in London. Their concerts were protested and their albums were destroyed. People harassed them and demanded they be boycotted. Those who protested them cheered at the possibility of The Dixie Chicks being financially destroyed and run out of show business altogether.

The defense people used for their protest of The Dixie Chicks? They said it was their right and just freedom of expression. The Dixie Chicks were free to say what they had said, and the protesters were free to ruin them for it.

My, how things have changed.

The same people who protested The Dixie Chicks are some of the same people moaning about the unfairness heaped upon this little pizzeria in Indiana. Protesting country music stars into obscurity is an important act of freedom of expression, but protesting some pizza maker who said something about gay marriage is apparently despicable.

People get the "Free Speech" argument wrong all the time. It is not, nor has it ever been, a license to say whatever you want, free of consequence. It frees you from being jailed or punished by the government, but it doesn't free you in the court of public opinion. It doesn't remotely mean that everyone has to shrug and simply ignore or accept what you say. And it doesn't mean you're free from financial ruin if you say something that incites public backlash.

Since the pizzeria fiasco, I've heard many people screaming about how unfair it is for anyone to suffer a blow to their business because of their opinions. But this isn't a new trend. It wasn't new when Sinead O'Connor ripped up a photo of the Pope. It wasn't new when Mel Gibson drunkenly berated a police officer. And it wasn't new when Bill Maher was fired by ABC.

It's a hard line to walk if you are a champion of free speech, as I like to think I am. On one hand, I don't wish financial ruin on someone due to an ignorant misspeak or simply because I politically disagree with them. On the other, I realize that serious change in society doesn't come with a shrug. We don't move towards eradicating bigotry and homophobia if we treat it as if it's something to ignore and shake off. Some speech isn't just "aw, shucks" ignorance. Sometimes people actually just say stupid things. And sometimes there are awful intentions behind that stupidity.

Some people will say it's all the same, no matter how you look at it. That there is no difference between those who protested The Dixie Chicks and those who protested that pizzeria. But isn't there? The Dixie Chicks spoke out against one man. They expressed embarrassment at their President. That's far different from discriminating against an entire group. Mel Gibson didn't complain about one Jewish guy he was angry with. Phil Robertson didn't go on a rant against Elton John.

See the difference?

People cheered when Bill Maher lost his job at ABC because he said that the 9/11 terrorists weren't "cowards." Yet the same people likely petitioned like crazy to keep Duck Dynasty on the air. Saying that suicide bombing is pretty ballsy was a disgrace, but tired old ramblings about homosexuals and The Bible is to be supported, lest we hate The First Amendment.

Some people just want to have their pizza and eat it, too.

People ask me all the time if I fear one day facing backlash of my own. Will something I say onstage or on the radio show I co-host come back to haunt me, like it did Bill Maher or The Dixie Chicks? Sure, that's a reality I deal with. You never know who might get offended these days. You can't be an opinionated entertainer and not think about it. I also know that you're more likely to find me saying I'm embarrassed by one person than I am to say my religious freedom excuses me to treat an entire group of people like second-class citizens.

Of course, if I do make such a blunder, I hope someone starts an enormous crowdfunding campaign on my behalf. Then at least I won't have to make a living delivering pizzas.

Ward Anderson is a comedian and co-host of the daily SiriusXM talk radio program "Ward & Al". He is also the author of the novels All That's Left and I'll Be Here All Week.

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