I've heard from several people recently that calling for a boycott of Chick-fil-A is an attack on free speech. In the realm of people I don't actually know personally, Sarah Palin has indicated that she feels that a boycott on Chick-fil-a has a "chilling effect" on First Amendment rights.
No one's sending Dan Cathy to jail. No one who has a shred of sense is even suggesting that he should go to jail. No one's forcing his company to stop donating money to whatever cause it wants to support. And, more importantly, the government isn't trying to shut him, or his company, down for his views and what is done with his money. That last point is important because here is what the First Amendment actually says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.No one is trying to stop Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A from expression. Consumers aren't the same thing as the government, and customers have the right to call for a boycott, and express their dismay with a brand. And it's up to Chick-fil-A to respond to that.
But, apparently, Chick-fil-A doesn't need to worry about the boycott too much, because for all the customers that disagree, and won't eat at a restaurant that doesn't share their "values," there are apparently plenty of customers that agree with Chick-fil-A and will stick around.
So let's not pretend that the people who are boycotting Chick-fil-A are causing a Constitutional crisis.
Freedom of Expression Comes with a Cost
While we are free to express ourselves (leaving out slander and libel), we aren't always in control of the consequences that expression brings. The First Amendment guarantees that Congress won't make a law abridging your right to freedom of speech, and, by extension, implies that you won't be jailed or fined for speaking out against politicians. The First Amendment doesn't guarantee that your customers, with whom you are in a business relationship, won't attempt to economically penalize you for what you say when they don't agree.
Just ask Target and the Dixie Chicks what happens when a bunch of consumers don't like what you have to say. (Of course, none of the people calling current boycotters bullies and militants thought it worth defending Target and the Dixie Chicks. Apparently, it's only a crisis if you don't agree with the boycotters' sentiments.) Boycotts are the way that customers and fans let companies and artists know what they are thinking. Even advertisers can use their dollars, responding to consumer pressure in many cases, to show displeasure -- just ask Glenn Beck.
But, even though there might be an economic hit, none of that stops the opinions. Target's still in business, and still supports causes it believes in. The Dixie Chicks released a couple more albums and did just fine. Glenn Beck continues to influence those who agree with him and keep the money train rolling.
Buy According to Your Values
We live in a world where conscious consumers like to know that what they believe, and what the companies they do business with, align. (Of course, there are plenty of customers who just don't care; they want what they want, and don't care what the company says or does with the money they fork over.) Chick-fil-A gives money -- funded by chicken sandwich purchases -- to organizations that actively campaign against homosexuals. Some of these organizations, including the Family Research Council, have expressed the belief that homosexual activities should be criminalized.
Some consumers don't agree that the money they spend buying chicken sandwiches should be spent on activities aimed at criminalizing an entire group of people for their consenting adult relationships. Some consumers want to support David Cathy and Chick-fil-A because they agree with a certain view of "strong family values." Both sides have the right to express their views with their dollars, and with their voices.
And the targets of boycotts have the right to change their tune to retain customers, or they have the right to stay the course and risk the loss of revenue. But the right to freedom of speech is not in jeopardy in this case -- or in the case of most other boycotts.
The Internet has given rise to greater transparency. We know where our consumer products come from, and we know the conditions in the factories that produce them. We know what big companies do with their money, whether it's funding embryonic stem cell research or giving money in support of anti-gay causes. And we want to be able to let those companies know when we support them -- and when we don't.
This is the power of the consumer. If enough consumers say the same thing, and take action to a degree that it catches the attention of the company decision-makers, change can be enacted. At the very least, a boycott can spur a debate. But the issue here isn't freedom of speech. Because no one's freedom of speech is being infringed upon.
And what about me? Will I be eating Chick-fil-A? Well, I've only had Chick-fil-A once, when it first opened here in town. I found it mediocre and uninspiring. My husband makes better chicken on the grill, so I've never been back. Chick-fil-A can't miss a customer that it's never truly had.