Chickening Out on the First Amendment
Dan Cathy, president of the U.S. fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, has long been known as a conservative Christian who closes his restaurants on Sundays. So perhaps it should not have been a surprise that when asked about his and Chick-fil-A’s opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, “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.’” He went on to accuse gay-marriage supporters of having a “prideful, arrogant attitude.”
Those remarks prompted sharp criticism from two big-city mayors, Thomas Menino of Boston and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. In an open letter to Cathy, Menino wrote, “I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston,” and later warned that “if they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult.” Likewise, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel was “determined to block Chick-fil-A from expanding in Chicago” on the grounds that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values.” DC mayor Vincent Gray later piled on, calling Cathy’s product “hate chicken.”
This writer shares the mayors’ distaste for Cathy’s views. But the idea that government officials can and should block a business when they disagree with the company’s leaders on political issues is even more disturbing. This would be an entirely different story if Chick-fil-A refused to serve or hire openly gay people, which is a violation of the law. But it does not appear that the chain is doing any such thing.
Among others, the Boston Globe’s editorial page issued a strong rebuke of its hometown mayor, asking, “Which part of the First Amendment does Menino not understand?” As the Globe wrote, “Using the power of government to freeze the company out of a city sends a disturbing message to all businesses. If the mayor of a conservative town tried to keep out gay-friendly Starbucks or Apple, it would be an outrage.”
The Globe’s smart editorial is exactly right. The right to free speech must apply equally whether or not one happens to agree with the ideas expressed. Menino’s and Emanuel’s threats, if followed up with concrete actions to block Chick-fil-A, would constitute an outrageous violation of this principle.