“Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson found himself out of a job on Wednesday — at least for the time being — when he was indefinitely suspended him from the hit A&E reality show, after he made several anti-gay remarks in a GQ interview.
It remains to be seen whether Robertson will be reinstated on the show — and it very well could turn out that, after a time-out session to let the controversy cool down, he could be back. But if the Robertson family patriarch doesn’t return to the show, does he have legal recourse against the network that airs the series?
While the specifics of Robertson’s agreement with A&E aren’t known, entertainment-industry protocol suggests that he would likely have have an uphill battle.
TheWrap spoke to multiple legal experts who said that, if Robertson’s contract contained a morals clause — as if often the case with on-air talent — than the reality TV star has little in the way of legal recourse.
Often, such morals clauses note that, if talents speaks or acts in a way that insults or denigrates people, the producer reserves the right to suspend or terminate that talent.
And typically, defining such language or actions is left to the discretion of the studio — basically, “if we say it is so, it is.” Tough to mount a legal argument against that.
“My guess is that they [suspended Robertson] on the basis of a morality clause,” one entertainment attorney told TheWrap on Wednesday. “Once you sign a reality show contract, they own you.”
Entertainment attorney Neville Johnson also noted that talent agreements generally tend to favor the networks. “If you see these talent agreements, they basically say they can do everything except torture you,” Johnson said.
While some — notably, failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — raised the issue of free speech in defense of Robertson, the “Duck Dynasty” star isn’t likely to find legal recourse under the banner of the First Amendment, as that only protects citizens from infringement on the government’s part.
“He has no First Amendment [complaint] against A&E,” Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA School of Law told TheWrap. “The First Amendment, the first word of the First Amendment is Congress: ‘Congress shall make no law.'”
And what of the possibility of arguing religious discrimination? While it’s true that Robertson’s anti-gay comments were couched in the context of Robertson’s religious beliefs, Volokh doesn’t see that as a likely success.
“It doesn’t sound like they were taking him off the show because they don’t like the fact that his message is religious; I think they don’t like the fact that his message is anti-gay,” Volokh said. “And people of various religions and no religions, some of them are anti-gay. and i imagine if an atheist on an A&E show said things that A&E thought disapproved of homosexuality, they would deal with it the same way.”