Bob Dunning

You can’t make free speech out of a chicken sandwich

By From page A2 | August 05, 2012

So now it’s a chicken sandwich that divides us.

Yes, you can intentionally or even inadvertently make a political statement by whether you choose to eat at Chick-fil-A or choose not to eat at Chick-fil-A. Which is all well and good. Freedom of expression is alive and well in the land of the free and the home of the brave

But make no mistake, when the mayors and assorted council members and aldermen of several major cities tried to bully and intimidate and suggest they would use the power of their office to deny Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy the right to do business in their cities because he expressed his opinion on a contentious social issue, they crossed a well-defined and sacred line.

Not that elected officials don’t have free speech rights of their own. They do. But they can’t use the power of government to punish speech they find objectionable.

The issue this time is seemingly same-sex marriage, but your views on this issue, my views on this issue, the views of the several mayors and the views of Dan Cathy are not relevant to this debate. The true issue here is freedom of speech and the absolute Constitutional prohibition on the government from punishing anyone in any way for expressing that right.

There is no such prohibition on the rest of us. Indeed, free speech is not free. Speak your mind and people can react any way they wish, as the Chick-fil-A controversy dramatically demonstrates. After Cathy’s views became known, some people lined up for hours to buy a chicken sandwich and others proclaimed they would never set foot inside a Chick-fil-A store no matter how hungry they may be.

Same-sex marriage is just one of many issues that divide this country. We’re divided on abortion, immigration, health care, the death penalty, gun control and the war in Afghanistan.

The “will of the people” on these issues depends largely on which area of the country you happen to call home.

Do we really want to go down the path of allowing local government to dictate who gets a business license and who doesn’t based on the applicant’s views on the issues of the day? When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he said he opposed same-sex marriage. Would these same mayors have denied him the right to do business in their cities?

The speaker of the New York City Council, Christine Quinn, in urging New York University officials to immediately close down the campus’s Chick-fil-A outlet, said “New York City is a place where we celebrate diversity. We are a city that believes our diversity is our greatest strength and we will fight anything and anyone that runs counter to that.”

Clearly, diversity of opinion is not something the speaker celebrates.

If the speaker had her way, she’d likely make a business owner’s personal views on a variety of subjects part of the formal application process. No point in letting a closet bigot onto the landscape simply because he’s smart enough to keep his mouth shut about the issues of the day.

And here I thought the role of government was to facilitate and foster free speech, not to punish those who dare to exercise it.

Now, if there were a history that Chick-fil-A — or any company — has violated federal or state laws or local ordinances in its hiring policies, its workplace practices or its refusal to serve people who have every right to eat there, then the government can and should deny a business license.

But if the government can punish someone’s personal opinion alone, then there is no free speech. And it doesn’t matter if that punishment takes the form of imprisonment, a fine or the denial of the right to do business. It’s punishment all the same.

You and I can punish or praise speech all we wish. We can boo, cheer, blog, write letters to the editor, pen op-eds, talk to our neighbors, eat chicken sandwiches until the cows come home or flat out refuse to eat chicken sandwiches. But the government is forbidden from rewarding or punishing someone based on his or her viewpoint.

Fortunately, the ACLU rode to the rescue on this very simple Constitutional concept, weighing in strongly on the side of Dan Cathy’s right to do business after Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno announced his plan to block a Chick-fil-A franchise in his city.

According to a senior attorney for the ACLU of Illinois, “When an alderman refuses to allow a business to open because its owner has expressed a viewpoint the government disagrees with, the government is practicing viewpoint discrimination.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, reacting to the city council speaker’s efforts to ban Chick-fil-A, took to the radio to say such a ban is “inappropriate,” a “bad idea” and “not the government’s job.”

Amen, amen and amen.

— Entries to the Contest to Replace the Above Pictured Columnist are due by midnight Sept. 3 (yes, an extension has been granted to all procrastinators). Essays may be about any subject and should be between 400 and 800 words long. Entries should be emailed to [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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