Chick-fil-a, Boycotts, and our Free Speech Culture

Let me make one thing clear: I love free speech.  I love free speech so much that I want to marry it (and in Massachusetts, I can!)  I’ve spent the majority of my legal career defending the First Amendment, I’ve written books about free speech, and I’ve represented free speech clients from across the political and religious spectrum.  I firmly believe the best response to bad speech is better speech, and for the Christian free speech is a fantastic cultural deal.  If we truly believe that our speech is empowered by the Holy Spirit of the Living God, then we have no need of government favoritism or censorship of opposing ideas.

But free speech — truly free speech — depends on more than the basic assertion of legal rights.  Free speech — truly free speech — depends on a culture that respects the existence of opposing views and seeks to engage and debate rather than bully and silence.  The Chick-fil-a controversy presented not only a threat to Chick-fil-a’s legal rights but also a threat to the American culture of free speech, and in many ways it was that second threat that was by far more significant.

The threats by the mayors of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco to exclude Chick-fil-a from their respective cities were shocking but empty.  Had the cities actually acted on their threats, and had Chick-fil-a challenged the cities in court, Chick-fil-a not only would have won immediately (and before virtually any judge appointed by any president), it’s likely the store would have been awarded attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.  The legal threat was so clear, so immediate, and so extreme, that it brought condemnation across the political spectrum, and most of the mayors have since backed down — publicly and quickly.

The cultural threat, however, remains.  To be clear, I’m not talking about clear and forceful critiques or even angry arguments.  Instead, I’m talking about the grayer areas of economic reprisals, shout-downs, borderline threats, and other intimidation tactics.  In the aftermath of California’s Prop 8 vote, financial supporters (who had to publicly identify themselves under mandatory disclosure rules) were subjected not only to death threats and other clearly unlawful intimidation tactics, but also things like protest mobs screaming “shame on you” to customers as part of an effort to close a business, campaigns to get employees fired, and other tactics designed specifically to make a person suffer for their speech.

This is not a new problem, and it’s one the Supreme Court has taken steps to address by protecting — in some circumstances — anonymous speech and participation in public debate.  In NAACP v. Alabama, the Court allowed the NAACP to keep its membership and supporters lists confidential because of the very real fear of “economic reprisal, loss of employment, [and] threat of physical coercion.”  (Sadly, the Obama administration has attempted to undermine this critical, culture-protecting ruling by using the IRS to try to determine the names not just of Tea Party donors but of employees and even volunteers, but that’s a topic for another day).  The Court recognized a simple truth: If the price of public participation is the loss of your job, fear for your physical safety, or an inability to participate in the economic life of the country, then people will tend to stay silent.

And that’s why I’m deeply ambivalent about boycotts and generally don’t participate.  I will urge a company to change its policies, blog about their practices, and maybe casually drive down the road to Wal-Mart rather than walk by a Lady Gaga display at Office Depot, but our culture works better when companies stand or fall on the strength of their products rather than the correctness of their politics.  After all, how many of us when we “boycott” know all the relevant facts?  Maybe the manager at Wal-Mart sponsors eight kids through World Vision while the owner of the “fair trade” coffee shop beats his wife.  My rule is simple:  Build a good computer, and I’ll buy it.  Brew a good cup of coffee, and I’ll drink it.  Support Obama, and I’ll blog it.

My friends know me as a cultural pessimist (I’m thinking of adopting the motto of House Stark: “Winter is Coming“), but yesterday I was delighted by the turnout at Chick-fil-a around the country and proud of my conservative, Christian, and independent-minded fellow citizens who showed up en masse to declare that bullies can’t win, speech is still free, and waffle fries are always tasty.


  • Tim Funke

    I do believe in being the best steward that I can with my money. You are so right in it being complicated though. Every company has some good and ever company has some dirt. Where do we draw the line. I see Home Depot trucks and uniforms in an “in your face” type of gay pride parade so the next day I drive 50 miles to go to Lowes instead of my local HD store. I fill my gas tank for the 100 mile round trip, with fuel from a country that hates us and would like nothing better than to see us gone from the face of he earth.

    I loved it that the masses went to Chick fil a yesterday, I joined them by purchasing $1500 worth and handing out at our office. I felt it was altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in another sense, I fear the mob mentality when the cause runs against my grain. Just as we saw the media outlets circle Dan Cathy, they can do the same to any of us.

    • David French

      Tim, thanks for your thoughtful post . . . and I need to work with you if you’re handing out that much free food!

  • Darin Scott

    Well said. Please also see my blog post. The threats you mention are very real and this was an important day.

  • Elisabeth Wood

    Sure, there are no perfect boycotts. Sometimes I have to be sensible and just buy a product that is necessary, such as gasoline. But when I become aware of companies making a public stand against righteousness, or pouring money into causes such as GLAAD, Planned Parenthood, etc., I have found boycotting to be effective, especially when large groups join together to boycott or BUYcott as we did for Chick-fil-A. is an example of a consumer watch group that makes a big difference. As for gasoline, the best I can tell is that we should vote for folks that will allow us to use our own oil. That won’t eliminate purchases from Arab countries, but might reduce it. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a “Made in U.S.A.” stamp on the gas pumps just like on produce? I love voting with my dollars.

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  • Lord Valiant

    As a left leaning liberal (on the LEFT) I personally don’t eat at Chick-fil-a, and I believe people have the right to buy or not buy a chicken sandwich. From where I sit, private citizens choosing not to support businesses that they believe infringe on their beliefs is perfectly A-OK. I don’t shop at Chick-fil-a mostly because I don’t care much for fast food, but also because I choose not to patronize overtly religious institutions. That’s fine. I’m not Chick-fil-a’s customer base. Their stores are largely situated in southern or rural/suburban settings and urban liberals such as myself would, at least in my hometown, need drive a rather long way out of the way to reach one.

    I’ll agree, though, that mayors have no right to deny permits in situations where no laws are being broken and the business meets the zoning requirements for the area. Unlike anti big-box laws a zoning ordinance which would kibosh a Chick-fil-a would also axe most fast food or fast casual businesses. If a city can impose a political test on a business then how long will it be until a conservative city in the south outlaws vegan restaurants or avant garde art shops? We cannot have a political test for participation in the economy- that way lay tyranny.

    Private citizens and groups, however, can choose not to partake of a particular business and not be considered ‘bullies’ for such, though. It is my right as a citizen to support the rights of all Americans of all religions or none- and it is my right as an American to support same-sex relations and choose not to associate with those for whom my opinions are anathema. I’ll call what I see as bigotry bigotry, and you can call me a vicious apostate universalist liberal trying to destroy what you view as the American way of life. We won’t change one another’s minds and we should both be glad we live in a nation where our opinions, presented lawfully, aren’t grounds for time in jail or a loss of our livelihoods.

    • Nancy French

      Great points!

    • Blog Goliard

      “…we should both be glad we live in a nation where our opinions, presented lawfully, aren’t grounds for time in jail or a loss of our livelihoods.”

      The problem is, the more promiscuous you are with rhetorical nuclear weapons like the term “bigot”, the more you help to destroy the sort of tolerant society you’ve just described.

      If you really believe that anyone who, like President Obama until about fifteen minutes ago, opposes same-sex marriage is a hateful bigot, then you do are indeed calling them to be drummed out of society, to suffer the loss of their livelihoods, even to suffer criminal penalties. That’s what calling someone an “-ist” means in contemporary society. Surely you know that full well. It’s as clear a signal as any that dissenters are not safe if your side prevails.

      And once you do, what’s next, and how much advance warning are we going to be given before we’re demonized for not renouncing on command some other foundational belief that virtually everyone, everywhere, throughout human history, has held?

      Which is why orthodox Christians and Jews cannot allow that to happen under any circumstances, however much our general sympathy for homosexually-oriented friends and neighbors makes us wish we could just give them what they (quite suddenly now) want.

      • Lord Valiant

        I’m a bit young, I’ll be 27 at the end of the year, but for my entire life the standards on these things and the attitudes of those around me concerning these issues have laxened. I am a bit harsh to bandy about the word ‘bigot’, perhaps, and I’m far too free to return what many I know see as hate with vitriol and anger.

        Perhaps there is a fundamental divide in world views- my ideas of freedom of speech, worship, and belief and yours will likely not coincide much. I am fundamentally a pluralist in most all things- worship, assembly, speech- we all have a right to hold our own views and meet with those with whom we wish to associate or not associate as private citizens of a free land.

        In my world, you absolutely have a right to associate with your fellows and deny union to all those who do not meet your creed’s criteria for matrimony. Many protestant churches will marry for a second or third time divorcees, the Catholic church does not as a rule- and I’m fine with that. I’d hope that in terms of legal protections as our body politic broadens the legal rights of individuals remain broad while also protecting religious assemblies and congregations to worship and believe as they see fit.

        In my perfect world a Unitarian Universalist congregation can marry same sex couples without fear of assault from outsiders and the protection of the law and a conservative Calvinist or Arminian Baptist congregation can hold fast to their principles as well. There is room enough for both in America without rhetoric becoming heated- as things stand now in many states in the union the legal status does not yet exist for those communities for which such unions are not anathema to practice as they see fit.

        I will not call you a bigot for holding to your beliefs even if others might. I want a civil society in this land of ours and while I vehemently disagree with the conservative religious community in which I was raised I strongly support your right to believe as you do.

        And I’ll not tell you what I think comes next- I’m quite permissive as a rule and place freedom near next to love as most high among virtues. I think where we find an impasse is in how much we seek to codify our views of the world into law. When it comes to the use of the force of law for our respective agenda we do, to a great extent, run out of common ground. For me to get my way society must allow things you may find detestable and for you to get yours many on my side would see it as a gross imposition.

        We step upon one another’s toes and I fear that I have no intention of stopping. I do apologize, and I wager that we would get along quite well as individuals- most of the freedoms I wish for others are things I do not personally partake of as I’ve no personal stake in the matter. I find theology and differing points on orthodoxies and world religions to be fascinating and spent several years as a ne’er-do-well student and recent graduate traveling to seek a deeper tie that binds all of us before finding reason to settle down a bit.

        As with most things, my interest in these issues is largely intellectual and based in a deeply secular worldview. Will the world change and new issues arise? Absolutely. I hope to be open enough at those points in my life to accept points fairly and with heart and head prepared to act with ever greater empathy.

        • Blog Goliard

          Lord Valiant, thank you for the excellent, thoughtful comment. You probably have less to apologize for than I do; some of what I wrote was as much a response to a composite of recent interlocutors as it was a reply to your post specifically.

          I would be in favor of the “perfect world” you describe when it comes to individual and religious freedom; and I can readily be brought on board when it’s proposed that we allow individuals to contract around some of the more onerous and unfair consequences of current laws.

          (For instance, the example of Sally Ride was bandied about recently. Even if I do not believe that it is, or should be regarded as, possible for her to have married her partner of 27 years…regardless of all that, the woman was immediate family, darn it, and it should have been easier to Ride to make better arrangements to have her looked after, including making her entitled to a survivor’s pension.)

          It seems that where we disagree most is not whether society should allow things that I find detestable–I’m a grownup, I fully expect the world to throw a dozen detestable things at me each day before breakfast, and know that in the vast majority of cases it’s my duty to just suck it up–but whether the world of tolerance you ably described is compatible with legally redefining marriage in such a novel and radical way, at least in the current climate. Reason, general personal experience, and the specific recent experiences of other jurisdictions all lead me to conclude that the answer is unfortunately “no”.

          I do hope that, if same-sex marriage winds up being instituted nationwide, I will be proven wrong on that point at least.

    • Jenny

      Thank you, Lord Valiant. The very first post I’ve seen amidst any of this which properly and respectfully explains both key points.

  • Jesus Morales

    Mr. French,

    I would just say that we don’t need to be cultural pessimists. One of my pastors really made a point that stuck with me a while ago. He made the point that God has already won the battle. Whatever happens, we know how it will all end and this is with God’s victory. I think we need to do all we can to stand for Truth and bring people to salvation. However, whatever gains the SSM activists or other groups may make are ephemeral. At the end of the day, we know what will happen.

    It’s a realization which has helped me to stress a lot less about politics. I still do what I can to try and reach out to others. I know I can come off strong to some people :-) However, I know that we’re just here to “stand our ground” until Christ returns and that helps a lot.

  • MCM180

    I mostly agree, except for one thing: the waffle fries became substantially less tasty once they stopped using peanut oil. I noticed it immediately before I saw the signs on the wall saying they’re now using something else (I think it’s canola oil — doesn’t matter, because I don’t get them anymore).

    I’m a little boycott-fatigued myself — and I agree, it’s impossible to truly keep your dollars from supporting things with which you disagree. Like the old story of the pencil and all the economic activity that goes to making it, we simply cannot know who all benefits from a dollar we spend. I do tend to stop buying products from those brands or companies most aggressively pushing their views that I find objectionable (Oreos lately, for example). But I don’t make a life out of it, nor do I go seeking out who might be a vile heretic in secret.

    Ah well. Life in a fallen world.

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  • Ellendil

    You all do realize that the outrage has nothing to do with free speech don’t you? He had every right to say what he did, and people have every right to respond that they think he and his company are bigots and to refuse to give the company their money. If you want to take away their right to freely express themselves then you are invalidating your whole argument about this being about free speech. Also, companies always have to watch what they say, because there are consequences to everything.

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