Chicken and Free Speech

I am pissed off. At whom, you ask? Well I’m about to tell you. I’m pissed off at the mayors of Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. It’s not because they support equal rights for LGBT citizens; obviously, I do as well. It’s because they opened their mouths and finally gave those gay-fearing right winger so-called Christians a legitimate complaint! Saying that Chick-fil-A is unwelcome in their cities and/or should be banned sounds like a clear violation of free speech to me (and to Jon Stewart).

I’ve been telling people about Chick-fil-A’s issues with gays for a long time, well before Dan Cathy opened his mouth and confirmed his bigotry. I won’t patronize them. I never have and likely never will, unless something big changes. It’s not because of the opinion of the founders/owners, it’s because they put their money where their mouth (finally) is. According to Equality Matters, WinShape Foundation–a charity funded mostly by profits from Chick-fil-A–donated “$1.1M to anti-gay groups from 2003-2008, the last year for which public records are available”. There have also been allegations of employment discrimination against unmarried employees or those who engage in “sinful behavior”.

Needless to say, I don’t much like Chick-fil-A, or the Cathy family. However, for an elected official to say that Mr. Cathy’s statements are grounds for banning the restaurant is completely inappropriate. For once, the anti-equality crowd saying their free speech is being infringed upon have a leg to stand on. And I hate that.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what free speech, in the U.S., is and is not. Many people–on the left and the right–get this wrong. What the First Amendment tells us, in essence, is this: the government shall not prevent someone from expressing an opinion or punish someone for expressing an opinion. It does not say you can shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. It does not say you can knowingly make false negative statements about someone else (see “defamation“) or make false claims about a product or service, or lie under oath. It also does not guarantee freedom from repercussions or criticism based on your speech. It doesn’t apply to non-government entities. This is where most of the confusion seems to come in.

If Bob goes on TV and says “I think widgets are terrible and should not be used for anything!” and then widget lovers criticize Bob, the widget haters may decry that Bob’s free speech is somehow being threatened by the widget lovers. But it’s not. In fact, both sides are exercising free speech, and the system is working as intended. Suppose that Bob works for ACME Widgets, Inc., a company that manufactures widgets (duh) who finds out about Bob’s statement. Bob’s boss pulls him aside and says “Hey, Bob, we can’t have a representative of ACME saying things like that. If you do that again, we’re going to have to let you go.” Now are his free speech rights being violated? Nope. ACME is a company, not the government. Without taking possible employment laws into account (that’s another whole can of worms), ACME could let him go on the spot. From a First Amendment standpoint, they’d be free and clear. If Bob owned…oh, let’s say a restaurant (Bob’s Burgers), and widget lovers called for a boycott of Bob’s, they would also not be violating Bob’s First Amendment rights. I’ll say it again: freedom of speech does not mean freedom from repercussions. Such regulation would be ridiculous, not to mention impossible to enforce. What if the mayor of Bob’s town (or the governor of his state) was pro-widget and tried to get Bob’s Burgers shut down because of his statements? Now we have a First Amendment issue! Not until the government gets involved does it become a threat to free speech.

And that’s what happened, in a limited but real way, with Chick-fil-A. Those mayors would have been free to express their own opinions, that Cathy was wrong and marriage equality is important. But to try to impose legal restrictions against the chain is going too far. Note that the thousands of private citizens criticizing Mr. Cathy and Chick-fil-A are not in any way violating anyone’s free speech rights; they are in fact, merely exercising their own.

Now the people who “flocked” (in the words of the New York Post) on their so-called “Appreciation Day” are being called “free speech supporters” by the Post and the HBIC (Head Bigot In Charge) of the movement, Mike Huckabee. And I’d love to believe that’s what they are. I’d love to believe those people are just–like me–pissed at the Mayors Three who overstepped their bounds. But come on, I’m not an idiot. Even if we assume most of those people don’t really understand free speech (and I’m pretty sure Huckabee at least does, he’s actually a pretty smart guy) I just know that many of them went because they heard “Gays shouldn’t be getting married!” and thought “AMEN!” And that makes me sad. But as Jon Stewart said, we’re going to win in the end. It’s inevitable that we will eventually get gay marriage, and they will “get Type II diabetes”.

I have more to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for another post another day in the near future. In the meantime, happy Friday and enjoy your weekend.