Last Friday I had the privilege of judging a debate at the local university. My friend Pam, who invited me, is part of the English as Second Language (ESL) Department over there and the debaters were all foreign kids, mostly African and Middle Eastern to my eye and ear. I suppose the idea of having them debate is to make them use their new language skills to argue their respective points before an audience while under time pressure. Good idea. This is hard enough to do when English is your first language.
The format was the British debating style. In the one I judged, one team (or House) had the position that censorship of the media was crucial to society and national security. The other House argued that censorship was a violation of the 1st Amendment and always impermissible. And off they went.
As was to be expected, some of the debaters were better than others. But both Houses were well prepared and earnestly went about their work. As the debate went on it became pretty clear that neither side had a real good grasp on what the 1st Amendment really is or does. For instance, one of the 1st Amendment debaters pointed out that both journalist Daniel Pearl and Martin Luther King died in places where governments were trying to suppress their views.
Now this was a false equivalence of the highest order and I was disappointed that nobody on (in?) the other House didn't knock it out of the park. But you also got the impression upon occasion as they went at it that both Houses thought that the 1st Amendment governs speech between individuals. Which it does not.
As I told the group in my remarks afterwards, the 1st Amendment only concerns itself with action by the government. As I told them, "If I am typing a letter to the editor about why I hate the Governor of Arkansas, and Pam (she was handy) kicks my door in and grabs my laptop, she is being mean and maybe I need to quit being friends with her. But she's not violating my rights. If the cops do it, they are violating my rights under the 1st Amendment. Because under the 1st Amendment I have the right to send a letter to the editor expressing my opinion, whatever it may be, about the Governor of Arkansas. And nobody in the government can stop me."
But the young debaters shouldn't feel badly on this score. Lots of folks get this wrong. Like some people who support the position of Chick Fil-A's CEO against gay marriage. As Gentle Reader may know, folks in the LBGT community (look it up as you really should know what this means by now) have organized a boycott of Chick Fil-A because of its stance on the issue. This has resonated with many people. Indeed, the mayors of the cities of Boston and Chicago have told CFA to take its business elsewhere.
And some folks on the Christian right have come to Chick Fil-A's defense in response to the boycott. Indeed, on August 1st our own Mike Huckabee and Billy Graham will go get some chicken during "Support Chick Fil-A Day." Or something. Which is fine.
What isn't fine, are some of the comments I have seen that equate the boycott of the business with "intolerance" or with a violation of the CEO's rights under the 1st Amendment.
Which is, of course, complete and utter nonsense.
As I have said before, I am free to spend my money whenever and wherever I choose. For whatever reason I choose to do it. The fact that I tend not to patronize businesses whose stated corporate values I do not share is not intolerance on my part. It's how I choose to spend my money. If I go into the local Chick Fil-A with an assault rifle and light the place up, that's an act of intolerance. If I stand across the street with a bullhorn and hurl vile epithets at its customers, that's an act of intolerance. Where I choose to spend my money is my business and my business alone. And besides, it's pretty damn hard to commit an act of intolerance if nobody knows about it. At least it's not a very effective one.
Secondly, the notion that Chick Fil-A is some kind of victim here is laughable. If they are they did it to themselves. When companies take polarizing stances, there is always some kind of response from consumers and interest groups. At least in the short haul. They didn't see this coming? If they didn't they are idiots.
Finally, as demonstrated above, the boycott violates nobodies constitutional rights. Nobody in the government has forced the CEO to retract his remarks. He is still free to stick to his guns. Folks are free to continue to get their yardbird at Chick Fil-A 7 days a week if they like. Wait. Make that 6. They are closed on Sundays.
And I am free to spend my money as I see fit. Because it's my money And if I choose not to patronize a certain business it's not because I am intolerant. It's my money. It's my business.
It's really not much more complicated or sinister than that. Really it's not.