In outraged response to fast-food outlet Chick-fil-A’s opposition to same-sex marriage, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has publicly urged the company not to open an outlet near the city’s Freedom Walk. More recently, Chicago alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno has announced plans to try to prevent Chick-fil-A from opening its second restaurant in the Windy City. This comes hard on the heels of the Jim Henson Company’s decision to end its erstwhile business partnership with the chicken-joint chain. As wrong as Chick-fil-A’s stance on gay rights is, efforts like those of Menino and Moreno are misguided and wrong. Governments should not be able to block anyone from doing business in a given jurisdiction simply for espousing the wrong viewpoints.
I should begin by emphasizing that the efforts of private individuals and organizations to boycott Chick-fil-A are quite legitimate. As our PolicyMic colleague Courtney Hodrick has already pointed out, the company’s right to free speech in no way trumps the right of its detractors to express their ire with its statements. The rest of us have every right to make our displeasure with the restaurant chain known by protesting against it — and by voluntarily withholding our dollars from it.
The company’s treatment at the hands of government, however, is a different story. As an assemblage of private citizens doing business together, Chick-fil-A has a right to express whatever views it wants, no matter how noxious or foolish they may be. Government, with its unparalleled coercive power and its constitutional duty to respect the freedom of speech, has no business penalizing private actors for uttering the wrong opinions. Speech, by itself, very rarely causes anyone the kind of harm that government can legitimately punish. Moreover, there is no right not to be offended by the propagation of ideas that one deplores.
Still again, giving government the power to chastise citizens in this manner sets a dangerous precedent in favor of censorship. Those who don’t mind such censorship when it is directed against their political adversaries should beware, for many can play at that game. Sympathizers of Mayor Menino and Alderman Moreno should ask themselves how they would react if, for instance, a Bible Belt town banished a company whose president committed the “offense,” not of actually performing abortions, but of merely speaking out in favor of abortion rights. Menino’s and Moreno’s threats smack of the same hypocrisy Nat Hentoff so adroitly identified as “Free Speech for Me—But Not For Thee.”
Alderman Moreno has dismissed free-speech concerns in this case, sniffing, “You have the right to say what you want to say, but zoning is not a right.” This is beside the point. If Chicago stops Chick-fil-A from doing business there in retaliation for company president Dan Cathy’s pronouncements, it is using its zoning power to punish the chain for exercising its’ owners’ and managers’ right to speak freely. Whether they have a general right to be zoned into that particular location is irrelevant. The issue is that the denial of a permit would be used as a penalty for unpopular speech. The penalty need not be a denial of a right in and of itself in order for its use to violate the freedom of speech.
Ultimately, those who advocate such draconian state responses to unpopular speech are guilty (however unwittingly) of intellectual cowardice. If the anti-same-sex marriage position is so wrong — and I wholeheartedly agree that it is — then its opponents should not fear taking it on in free and open debate. Frankly, they should welcome every opportunity to expose the weakness of the arguments for it. By using government power to suppress and intimidate it, however, they only leave a (false) impression that advocates of marriage equality have no convincing arguments to make for it. They also fuel opposition to same-sex marriage by reinforcing social conservatives’ paranoid belief that their faith is somehow persecuted in America today.
It is bad enough when government chooses winners and losers in commercial markets. Doing so in the marketplace of ideas is inexcusable. Menino, Moreno and their ilk would do well to heed the words of the English poet John Milton: “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”