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Free Speech

by on August 9, 2012

What exactly is your Right to Free Speech?  It comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which was adopted on December 15, 1791.  It reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 
Originally, the First Amendment applied only to laws enacted by the Congress.  However, beginning in 1925 with the case of Gitlow v. New York, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment  (Due Process Clause) extended it  to the individual state governments, also limiting their ability to restrict speech.

Our Constitutional right to “freedom of speech” is very often discussed in poor context.  Literally, it states that the government cannot make a law that will limit your free speech, with few exceptions.   To be perfectly clear, an individual or an organization cannot infringe on your right to free speech.  The Constitution cannot protect you from being fired from a job for speaking your mind, or from individuals’ right to respond, whether it is in protest or by boycotting your business, for example.  You have the legal right as protected by the Constitution, for example, to make a public statement that infers that you are against same-sex marriage, or minorities, or democrats, or children.  But the Constitution offers you no protection from any response that you receive from customers, employers, advertisers, suppliers, neighbors, and so forth and so on. 

I’m sure we’ve all heard of the recent controversy surrounding Chick-Fil-A.  Up here in the northeastern U.S. where there are few stores, we aren’t all that familiar with the Atlanta-based franchise.  But if you travel or have lived in the south or midwest, you surely must be familiar with their chicken sandwiches, biscuits and gravy.  You may also know that the corporate culture is openly driven by their Christian beliefs, evidenced notably by the fact that they are one of the only fast food franchises that you can’t patronize on a Sunday.  The controversy arose recently when the COO of Chick-Fil-A, when questioned on a few occasions about his views on same-sex marriage, spoke very openly about his opposition.

Now, although I have strong personal beliefs on the topic, I’m not here today to make an argument for or against same-sex marriage.  I will not be discussing equality.  Nay will I espouse what was intended by what was written in the Bible by whom and for whom.  On the other hand, with my handy business education and experience in the field of sales, I have the perspective to look at this on a much more practical plane.

When you own a business, or even if you are simply an hourly employee, your lifeline is your customer.  Without customers, there is no business.  As “they” say – the customer is always right.  What purpose then, does it serve for a businessowner to make public statements that will alienate an entire section of the population of potential customers? 

Now, steering clear of taking sides on the same-sex marriage debate, and looking at it practically, public polling on the issue shows that the population is roughly split 50%/50% on the issue, depending on who is doing the polling.  Did he just alienate 50% of the US population?  Did he feel that public knowledge of his opinion on this matter was so significant that he was willing to lose 50% of his sales?

Why wouldn’t he simply say, “no comment”.  Why, oh why, if you own a multi-billion dollar public corporation would you provoke potential customers?  Why would any business, be it, let’s say, a small-town website that depends on donations and advertising dollars or the owner of a local sandwich shop, antagonistically and maliciously videotape children playing in a public park?  Don’t you know your actions might have consequences?    

As someone once said – “I have the right to my opinion, and you don’t have the right to question me about it!” 

Is it arrogance?  Is it naïveté?  Do some business owners believe they are so untouchable that divisive words and actions should have no response, no effect on their bottom line?  Could they be so bold as to say that it is unfair when there is backlash when they ostrasize, malign and spread false propaganda?  Don’t customers have the right to decide where to buy their chicken, or where to read their news, and might they dissasociate with business owners that have created controversy?  Of course they do!  Historically, citizens of this fine country have used their buying power to echo their beliefs.  It is a very successful means of voicing your own opinion, just as those who agree with the actions of the management of Chick-Fil-A supported him on August 1st, while those who disagreed launched a boycott and protest on the same date.  Your financial support of a company sustains the businesses’ speaking platform.  Your decision to boycott a given company states that you will not assist their actions or public statements.  

So, to avoid any discussion of morality at this time, let’s just all agree to agree that it is proof of lack of business acumen that any owner of any business would publicly alienate an entire group of people, no matter how big or small.  Your words and actions may be protected, but they most certainly do have consequences.  If you aren’t bright enough to expect that, you deserve what you get.  While the Constitution protects your right to speak your mind, your business teacher should have told you to be careful what you say and do.  If, for whatever  reason, you feel that it is vital that you be divisive, be prepared for a protest, a boycott, and to suffer financially.  The Constitution may protect you from your Government, but it can’t protect you from yourself.

Speak freely.

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