Cities should keep hands off Chick-fil-A

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You and I are free to agree or disagree openly with the president of the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain over his public statements against gay marriage. The First Amendment protects his and our right to express our views.

But when government officials take sides, they walk a much finer line between protected expression of personal views and the implication — if not open threat — of government punishment for free speech.

Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy told the Baptist Press last week, in response to a question, that the company was “guilty as charged” for backing “the biblical definition of a family.” In a later radio interview, he went further: “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’”

The list of city leaders and others opposed to Cathy’s views grows — and to some degree, that’s fine. Whether expressing a view they hold as citizens, or speaking on behalf of their constituents, public officials certainly may comment on matters of public concern.

But whenever officials venture into the marketplace of ideas, it’s impossible to ignore that they also carry with them the “big stick” of political power and municipal or state laws.

And using that power to still or chill projects, companies or business leaders because of an opinion goes well beyond a proper role. When government talks about punishing a speaker for speaking, it’s called “viewpoint discrimination,” which the First Amendment forbids.

Here’s a sampling of city officials’ comments:

  • The Associated Press reported that District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray said he wouldn’t support expanded Chick-fil-A outlets in the district, calling the company’s product “hate chicken” in a July 27 tweet.
  • Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said the company “isn’t welcome” in his town, but later backed away from a remark that he would keep the chain from opening its first restaurant in his city.
  • Chicago alderman Joe Moreno pledged to block Chick-fil-A expansion in Chicago using rezoning laws. He noted ominously that “there are consequences for freedom of speech (and) in this case, you’re not going to have your first free-standing restaurant” in the city, according to AP.

Nothing in the First Amendment ensures people will like what you say, or won’t vehemently disagree with it. But that doesn’t mean government gets to be the one piling on.

Some years ago, the Dixie Chicks angered many with criticism of then-President George W. Bush. For a time, their record sales plunged among country music fans. But the group regrouped and found new fans — and won multiple Grammy Awards in the process.

No mayor or city council enacted an ordinance. The White House didn’t try to put the group out of business.

When radio host Don Imus was slammed for remarks deemed racist about a college sports team, nobody invoked municipal power. Angry listeners spoke with their phone calls, e-mails and letters. Network and advertising officials listened, and after a short time off the air, Imus — who apologized — was back in broadcasting, chastened in the court of public opinion, not city court.

In this latest flap, people will speak with their wallets and decide — to use a Chick-fil-A advertising slogan — whether or not to “Eat Mor Chikin.” Some will. Some won’t.

That’s how the consequences of free speech should play out. No rezoning required.

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