What is it about the First Amendment’s legal and moral protections that confuse so many people?The culture wars between America’s favourite Cookie and what, for my money, is the best fast-food poultry sandwich out there smacked squarely into the Constitution in the past week or so. But not in the way that it appears too many people assumed.
To review the most recent bidding:
Last month, Kraft Foods (owners of Nabisco) celebrated Gay Pride month by publishing an online poster featuring a sextuple-stuff version of the iconic Oreo, with each layer of “creme” a different rainbow colour.
Opponents of gay rights went up in arms, calling for a boycott of Oreos. But not, far as I can tell, Nabisco or even Kraft. Meaning that the cookie was responsible for its own transgressions and must be punished, but not its corporate overlords?
T’other side of the argument made fun of people who would see fit to boycott a cookie for a political cause.
More recently, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy made explicit his opposition to gay marriage — and to the money he’s contributed over the years to advocate his side of the argument. And t’other side went up in arms, calling for a boycott of the chain. With the response from Side One that such a boycott is silly.
This isn’t a new kind of argument, of course. Back in the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention called for a boycott of Disney because of that corporation’s support for gay rights. The Baptists actually attacked something that didn’t exist, a Disney-sponsored “Gay Day” at the parks. In any case, Disney did extend health insurance and other benefits to employees with same-sex partners.
The boycott had no discernable effect on Disney’s business but attracted considerable derision from folks who disagreed with the boycott call.
(All of which makes the most recent statements by ordained Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee, well, interesting. He’s against at Chick-fil-A boycott: “I just find this level of trying to destroy people’s jobs and livelihoods because they don’t agree with them — that’s very troubling, and it gets to the very heart of a kind of America that’s very different than the one we grew up with.”)
So should companies take such stands on controversial issues? One is not required to believe that corporations are people to think that the actual people who own companies haven’t given up their rights to take public positions.
On the other hand, seems to me that those who condemn calls for boycotts and other actions have it wrong, too. Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences for such speech. Surely consumers are entitled to use such stands as one factor in deciding where to spend their money?
California’s Prop 8 election offered a good example of how this discussion tends to roll out. Supporters of gay marriage identified major donors on the other side and called for consumer reaction.
Douglas Manchester, whose hotels were a target of the boycott call, objected in a quote in in theNew York Times: “This really is a free-speech, First Amendment issue. While I respect everyone’s choice of partner, my Catholic faith and longtime affiliation with the Catholic Church leads me to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
Sarah Palin offered a similar sentiment about the Chick-fil-A discussion: “That calling for the boycott is a real-has a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights,” Palin said on Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record” show.
Except that no, it’s not really a First Amendment issue at all. Or at least not in that way. The First Amendment prohibits governments from infringing on free speech (and religious expression, the press, assembly and petitioning the government for redress of grievances).
But consumers aren’t governments. If someone wants to stop shopping on Amazon because its owner just donated $2.5 million in support of a gay marriage referendum, the Constitution is silent. Ditto for the person who wants to skip their Starbucks, Oreo, Chick-fil-A or any other product based on political or oral considerations.
So where did the Constitution get bumped? Looking at you, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh! There, city officials either overtly threatened or implied the threat of government action against the fast food chain.
In Chicago, an alderman went so far as to threaten to withhold a zoning approval for a new branch of the chain.
I can’t improve upon the succinct response by the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart: “By the way, for all you cities out there who believe you can pass a zoning ordinance against homophobic sandwiches? No.”
Summing up: government officials threatening official, punitive reaction to corporate owners’ political stands? Illegal and unconstitutional. Corporate owners’ involvement in political issues? Legal and fine. Public reaction to that involvement, support or boycott? Legal and fine. In fact explicitly protected by the First Amendment.
And anybody who invokes the First Amendment as being threatened by private citizens expressing themselves — corporate owners or potential customers? Ignorant.
Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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