Chick-fil-A

Changing the subject is one of the neatest tricks of a “political activist” (which for today’s purposes shall be construed to mean a person who works actively toward a political goal and therefore not considered a pejorative).

So when feathers started to fly after Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy said he believed marriage should be limited to opposite-sex couples and people who disagreed discovered that he’d been putting his money where his mouth was, people who favor same-sex marriage thought that was the topic of debate.

Outraged Chick-fil-A defenders immediately said, “No, the subject is freedom of speech.”

Few people suggested that Cathy does not have the right to think what he wants and say what he thinks, nor to contribute money to organizations that share his belief and work to ensure that it remains enshrined in law. The Bill of Rights is absolutely clear on that.

Customers have a similar right to vote with their wallets, either by eating lots of “chikin” and waffle fries or by boycotting Chik-fil-A. They also have a right to tell others why they are doing it. Let’s not pretend that the people who flocked to Chick-fil-A last week would be similarly supportive of Cathy’s right to say he really prefers roast beef, or that the boycotters are in favor of censorship. The issue really is that some people think he is right to oppose same-sex marriage and some people think he is wrong.

The free-speech issue grows a little murkier when the speaker (or writer) is an elected official. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, a former Obama administration official, said, “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values.” Boston Mayor Tom Menino wrote a letter disinviting the chicken restaurant from expanding into the city. Commentators across the country pointed out that rebutting political viewpoints is one thing, while silencing them is another.

True enough – except that nobody, really, was trying to prevent Cathy from speaking.

Elected officials frequently face calls to influence which ideas are expressed publicly and “officially” in their communities. Parade entries ranging from gay pride to white pride face challenges. A lot of people who favor free speech and agree with Cathy’s viewpoint do not believe some governmental entity should bar Westboro Baptist from disrupting military funerals with signs proclaiming, “This soldier died because God hates fags.”

More benignly, constituents ask for resolutions officially proclaiming celebrations such as Hedgehog Week, and politicians clamor for the endorsements of their local peers. Even more to the point, local officials often travel to Denver and Washington to lobby – yes, that is the word – for specific political actions opposed (as every political action is) by some percentage of their constituents.

Angering some people is a natural consequence of free speech. Just as customers can react to Cathy’s position by supporting his restaurants or not, voters can react to Emmanuel’s and Menino’s by voting. All three men may now wish they had thought a little longer before they spoke, because they have made enemies without influencing anyone’s opinion on the topic – which still is marriage, not freedom of speech.

But those who want to make this a First Amendment issue should know this: The marketplace of ideas is gloriously messy, and resolution often is a long time coming, but debating with one another, even loudly and indecorously, is still the best way we have to sort through clashing ideas.

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