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Free speech and Chick-fil-A

Editorial

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino vowed to block Chick-fil-A's effort to open an outlet in that city. But the freedom to express unpopular viewpoints must be protected too.

July 24, 2012
  • Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy recently made statements implying a strong, biblically based stand against same-sex marriage.
Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy recently made statements implying a strong,… (Mike Stewart / Associated…)

The Muppets are well within their rights to shun Chick-fil-A after the chain restaurant donated to anti-gay groups and its president, Dan Cathy, made statements implying a strong, biblically-based stand against same-sex marriage. They're private, um, puppets. But public officials have a responsibility to carry out their ministerial tasks fairly and evenhandedly — and to uphold the principle of free speech — whether or not they like a business executive's social or political stances. We disagree heartily with Cathy, but are far more troubled by the reaction of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who vowed to block Chick-fil-A's effort to open an outlet in that city.

Cathy's recent pronouncements on marriage provoked a storm of protest as well as support. Jim Henson Co. announced it would sign no more deals to feature its toys at the chicken restaurant. There were threats to boycott the company's food. Others swore to boycott the Muppets.

Boycotts are a time-honored way for consumers and groups to express their views through their spending power, though it's worth noting that just as Americans have split along more divisive lines politically, so have their shopping habits. Some people won't travel to Utah because of Mormon support for Proposition 8; others won't step foot in aJ.C. Penneybecause of its ads featuring same-sex couples. As both a private citizen and a prominent public figure, Menino is welcome to abstain from fried chicken sandwiches and urge others to do likewise.

VIDEO: Chick-fil-A makes a controversial statement about gay marriage

It's a different matter if he attempts to trample the free-speech rights of others by using the power of his office to fight against a business license for Chick-fil-A. Menino suggested that it would be appropriate to block the chain from opening in Boston because Cathy's views amount to discrimination. That would rightly apply if Chick-fil-A were to refuse service to gay customers; the city has a right and an obligation to prevent discriminatory actions against its residents and visitors. But there's no evidence that any such thing has occurred.

Menino referred derisively to Chick-fil-A's possible plans to open a restaurant along the city's Freedom Trail, considering Cathy's stand on marriage freedom. That too misreads law and history. It was the freedom to express politically unpopular views and to oppose such views that the Founding Fathers fought to establish. Boston used to be known as the prudish place most likely to ban anything outside of a set of strait-laced moral beliefs. Without freedom to express once unpopular viewpoints — in this case, full civil rights for gay and lesbian couples — Massachusetts wouldn't have become the first state to recognize same-sex marriage.

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