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Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom of Choice

December 8, 2012

My girlfriend made a statement today which many may find strange or out of place, but which I understood completely. As we were driving she said, “I hate Chick-Fil-A! But I want it so bad.”

I think any number of people would agree with the second half of her statement. Their chicken sandwiches are delicious, and their milkshakes are hands down the best around. Especially now with the peppermint chocolate chip milkshake… OK, I need to stop. Their people are also extremely friendly and competent, and they have commercials which, for the most part, don’t make you want to shoot yourself the 9,000th time they come on.

That being the case, what precipitated the first half of her statement? Well, for those of you who either didn’t catch it because you don’t live in a part of the country that has a Chick-Fil-A, or you were hiding under a rock, earlier this year Chick-Fil-A CEO Don Cathy made some anti-gay marriage comments in an interview with the Baptist Press. When these statements hit the news, I was not surprised as the Cathy’s have made no secret of their Christian beliefs (they are closed on Sundays, after all) and, well, look at who the interview was with.

So at first I thought this was much ado about nothing. The leader of a company with obvious Christian values makes comments against gay marriage. So what? Then came the report that Chick-Fil-A had donated more than $2 million to anti-gay groups in 2011 alone. At that point I had to step back and reevaluate my stance, as this news meant my money was being used to actively advocate against an issue I support. As pressure mounted, Chick-Fil-A apparently agreed to stop donating to anti-gay groups. While this is true in theory (their organization no longer donates directly to these groups), in principle it is still false, as the company still lends its image and power to groups with the same agenda.

The firestorm Cathy’s comments created caused some traditional values supports to cry he and the chain were being persecuted for their beliefs, and Cathy’s freedom of speech was being infringed by the likes of those who were calling for a National Kiss-In day at Chick-Fil-A restaurants to show support for gay rights. This led Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee to organize a Chick-Fil-A appreciation day to show their support of the organization and their right to free speech.

But here’s the thing: this is not a free speech issue. If you say the Earth is flat, I have a right to call you an idiot and refrain from talking to you further. If a company decides to support activities I disagree with, I have a right to stop giving that company my business. And if I proclaim that I am in full support of equal rights for gay people, you have every right to call me a Jesus-hating baby killer who is bringing down America. I also have the right to ignore you. The people who came out to support Chick-Fil-A were not supporting a right to free speech, despite their claims to the contrary.

How can I say that? Because none of those people would have come out had Cathy said that Jews should be rounded up and put to death because they are a menace to society, despite the fact that he has an equal right to say that. Ninety-nine percent of the public would have found those comments deplorable, and Chick-Fil-A business would have plummeted. Instead, he made statements that agreed with the political leanings of those in the areas his restaurants exist, and so he was rewarded.

As a result of his statements, my girlfriend and I no longer eat Chick-Fil-A, despite the fact they are probably the best fast food restaurant around. We also no longer give to the Salvation Army, as they also actively lobby against gay rights. This is not because we believe these organizations do not have a right to support their beliefs, but we do believe that we have every right to refrain from supporting those organizations who are going to use our support in ways contrary to our beliefs.

The bottom line is, statements don’t get to exist in a vacuum, free from external forces and reactions. Feel free to use a homophobic slur when talking to this woman, but remember that her fist in your face is not a suppression of free speech. It is a reaction to it.

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