This Op/Ed piece comes to us from CGCS Young Scholar Ilyssa Yousem, a junior at Bryn Mawr College, majoring in philosophy with a concentration in peace and conflict resolution.
The CGCS Young Scholar program is a new feature of the CGCS blog that gives young, media-minded writers a platform to hone their writing and research skills and host recent work.
It is now old news that Dan Cathy, the private-sector CEO of Chick-fil-A, came out in opposition to same-sex marriage, but the controversy is still at the forefront of the nation’s conscience. The public has turned its attention to the First Amendment implications of Cathy’s unpopular statement.
Cathy and his company have received intense condemnation by both the general public and politicians nationwide after exercising a right protected by the Amendments to the United States Constitution. Commentary regarding the Chick-fil-A issue has not only appeared in mainstream media all over the country, but on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as well. From the ladies on The View, to college professors, to celebrities, it seems everyone has felt the need to put in their two cents. Perez Hilton, expressing his discontent with the matter, tweeted “I heard #ChickFilA gives you diarrhea! I wouldn’t know. I don’t support those homophobes. I prefer some El Pollo Loco realness!” Nancy Pelosi even chimed in, tweeting, “For the record, I prefer Kentucky Fried Chicken. #ChickFilA.” Not everyone was displeased with Cathy’s statement, however, as sympathizers organized Chick-fil-A Appreciation day on August 1st – a day in which millions of people patronized their respective chain in support of Chick-fil-A’s stance on marriage. As expected, gay rights activists responded with fervor, staging same-sex kiss-ins at many Chick-fil-A locations.
Though Cathy’s statement was admittedly controversial, many may ask the questions: “Is the backlash sparked by Cathy’s unpopular statement unfair?; Is our coveted right to free speech being attacked?” Well, although the tactics of the pro-same-sex marriage community may not be nice, it is the consumer’s right to react negatively to controversial speech – just as it is Cathy’s right to publicly claim his belief in the Biblical definition of marriage. The consumer may protest in anyway he or she sees fit, that is, until the protest becomes censorship.
As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino were reminded, they, and every other elected official, may not use government powers to punish those with opposing views. Preventing Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in the officials’ respective city does not comply with the First Amendment. Unless Chick-fil-A has discriminated against gay customers or employees, which it appears to have not, the CEO’s personal beliefs may not prevent him from expanding the franchise to unwelcomed territory, though Cathy does so at his own risk.
To this end, Emanuel and Menino were in the wrong for threatening censorship– not Cathy for expressing conservative ideals that he, a devout Southern Baptist, has held since birth. Explicating this point, writer and lawyer Glenn Greenwald writes, “If you support what Emanuel [and Menino are] doing here, then you should be equally supportive of a Mayor in Texas or a Governor in Idaho who blocks businesses from opening if they are run by those who support same-sex marriage.”
We must also remember that Cathy has never hid his support of Christian ideals or “the traditional family.” Not only is Chick-fil-A closed on Sundays, but it is also public knowledge that Cathy donates millions of dollars to organizations that actively fight against gay rights causes. Even if we do not like what Cathy does with his profits, he is free to do as he pleases (provided that he does so legally) in his personal life. And the same goes for every other public figure. In theory, those who are challenging Chick-fil-A should, protest many more public officials and business owners, as there are, unfortunately, hundreds of leaders who partake in morally questionable practices. Adultery, improper parenting, corruption, and tax evasion, among other unflattering behaviors, run rampant in the high-power world, but very few suffer the brunt of the public’s criticisms.
We Americans are very protective of our rights, and we when not feel like our freedoms are being compromised, we cry out (rightly so). However, if we want to keep enjoying the comfort of our Constitutional rights, we must also respect the rights of those Americans with whom we do not agree. It is easy to criticize opinions that oppose our own, but our true American identity shines when we stand up to defend the First Amendment when the speech does not adhere with our personal beliefs. Despite the fact that John Knight, director of the LGBT project at the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union chapter, may not agree with Cathy’s beliefs, Knight exemplified a commendable mentality by supporting Cathy’s right to free speech. In a Mother Jones article, Knight stated, “[W]e think there’s a constitutional problem with discriminating against someone based on the content of their speech.” As such, we must take a hint from Knight and preserve what makes our country so unique – the millions of different people, backgrounds, ideals, and opinions protected by a document over 200 years-old living in (relative) peace.
Keep an eye out for more work from CGCS Young Scholars like Ilyssa Yousem this Fall with the relaunch of our blog.