Chick-Fil-A Has a Right to Free Speech, But Not Freedom From Consequences

Posted on July 30, 2012


Ironic, isn’t it?  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg won’t let you have your trans-fats or sugar, but you can still get your fast food fix from an anti-gay-marriage fast-food chain.  While the mayors of San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington DC have said that Chick-Fil-A, which actively opposes gay marriage, is not welcome in their cities, Mayor Bloomberg disagrees.

The Associated Press quotes Bloomberg as saying that cities should not ask about political beliefs before issuing a business permit, and that such beliefs are none of the government’s business.  In general, I agree, but the issue is not that the mayors asked; it is that Chick-Fil-A – as a business, not an individual – has actively made public statements in public venues.  As Seth Cline notes in US News and World Report, Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy said in a radio interview, “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’.”

I think it’s an important distinction that this is not a case of Chick-Fil-A’s founder or president quietly donating personal, private funds to anti-gay groups.  It’s the business donating business funds, to the tune of millions of dollars, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes it fair game for those mayors who support gay marriage and promote their cities as places that respect gay rights.

Americans have freedom of speech (with some limitations).  But there are still consequences to speaking our minds.  We are not surprised, are we, if we spew some kind of hate-filled invective in a job interview and then don’t get the job?  If we proselytize at work, and then are fired?  So if a privately-owned business donates large sums of money to causes in direct opposition to the goals and culture of the local municipality, should we be surprised that they find themselves unwelcome?

You have a right to your opinions.  You have a right to run a business.  You have a right to direct your privately-owned business as you see fit (within the law).  You do not have a right to receive automatic approvals of your business-permit applications, nor to set your business up anywhere you please.  If that were true, there could be gun and liquor stores next to schools and churches, and there would be no such thing as a “dry” county.  Local municipalities have the right – indeed, the obligation – to plan and develop their cities in the best interests of its citizens.  In the county where I live, there has been a long-running struggle for certain businesses to get permits, because the local residents actively oppose their presence.  There is no legal or policy reason that those businesses are not issued permits; but the county does take residents’ complaints into account, so the permits are often denied or simply not renewed.  It’s all about promoting a harmonious environment; running a city or county is hard enough without actively inviting problems.

I see the Chick-Fil-A kerfluffle as just a different iteration of the same issue.  Chick-Fil-A has taken a social / moral / political stand in full view of the public.  Some hail them as protectors of a righteous way of life.  Good for them!  I’m sure Chick-Fil-A will do well in cities where those are the dominant views.  But for cities where the populace sees that stand as judgmental and discriminatory, well… maybe the franchise should find somewhere else to operate, rather than looming as a symbol of divisiveness or possibly even attracting protests.  Indeed, protests and boycotts are already threatened or planned for several locations in California.  And that’s not just a city concern; it can hardly good for business, either.

I think Chick-Fil-A is starting to see the mayors’ point, or at least is starting to see that using a fast-food business as a moral bully pulpit is not the best long-term business strategy.  According to The Washington Post, a Chick-Fil-A spokesman has announced that the company will “no longer participate in the debate over same-sex marriage.”


*On a side note, the US is hardly alone in its progress toward gay marriage and expanded rights for same-sex couples.  It is interesting to note that the countries that have made the biggest strides in that direction are also generally those with the best human-rights records.