I am so happy I decided to stop eating chicken last month. It had nothing to do with the Chick-fil-A brouhaha, but rather, a chance encounter with a sweet wandering hen in Minnesota. That story’s for another time, but for now I’m relieved that I got to have my chicken sandwich mourning period privately, without having to hear everyone’s opinions about it on CNN.
However, when I was still a chicken eater, I’d already boycotted Chick-fil-A (sigh — I loved their sandwiches). They’d been donating scads of money to anti-gay groups for years and even founded a “pro-marriage” organization through their charitable wing, WinShape. They’re not the first company I’ve stopped patronizing for political reasons (Carl’s Jr., Dominos, Walmart and even the Salvation Army are on the list too), and will probably not be the last. I thought this was one of the core concepts in capitalism – customers create demand not just for products but for business practices as well. It’s almost a national tradition.
Thus I’m baffled by the sudden uproar over CEO Dan Cathy’s comments in support of the “Biblical definition” of marriage. It’s not like he said anything surprising, considering that Chick-fil-A has funded groups like the Eagle Forum (remember Phyllis Schlafly? Still going strong!), Focus on the Family (founder James Dobson recently declared that “Glee” was in the hands of “the Enemy”), and Exodus (praying the gay away…but not very well). If he’d sung the Lumberjack song in full drag, now that would’ve been a fabulous shock.
Please don’t misunderstand; I think Cathy is a moron. But why is everyone so upset by what he said, and not so concerned about what he’s been doing all along? And why does the dialog seem so screechy? Predictably, the far right is calling the entire left intolerant and against free speech because some of us have called for a boycott, and a few more want Chick-fil-A officially banned. Meanwhile, Texas is rolling out the red carpet. Rahm Emanuel has declared Chicago a no-Chick-fil-A zone while the Palins are posing with thumbs up and holding bags of the stuff. And Facebook has caught on fire. Everyone is screaming about free speech, but my impression is that few know what that actually is.
I never thought that I’d be using my legal background to explain free speech as it applies to chicken sandwiches, but here goes.
Each of us has a right to vote with our wallets for any reason. Money talks, and talk is protected by the Constitution (see the Citizens United case for a vivid example of that). A Chick-fil-A boycott is a lawful, and I’d even argue, American, thing to do. Meanwhile, evangelicals get to boycott you, me or Kermit the Frog for boycotting Chick-fil-A (and Kermit has boycotted Chick-fil-A, by the way). Dan Cathy’s remarks are offensive, but I’d still defend his right to speak.
Rahm Emanuel, however, as the mayor of Chicago doesn’t get to ban Chick-fil-A from his city; neither does Boston Mayor Thomas Menino nor D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. This is because our Constitutional guarantee of free speech only applies to government action. You and I are free to protest Chick-fil-A as much as we like, but no government official could (or should) interfere with its operations just because its CEO is an odious jerk.
You might wonder, then, why each of these mayors is spouting off anyway. As individuals they can express their opinions, even if they can’t actually head Chick-fil-A off at the city limits. We can support their bully-pulpit leadership, or scream outside of City Hall because … well, almost any reason. Personally, I suggest a nice note to Mayor Gray for tweeting about “hate chicken,” which gets my vote as best new term describing the intersection of inequality and fast food.
If this still seems convoluted, you only need to remember one thing: Imagine if the tables were turned and politicians were allowed to ban local businesses for publically supporting LGBT rights. There is an old legal axiom that applies now as much as ever: the best response to bad speech is more speech. It’s messy, loud and often painful, but it’s way better than the alternative.