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Laslo Boyd: A civil debate – Drumsticks at 20 paces

Americans are, at least in theory, committed to the First Amendment. The right to free speech is one of the pillars of our democracy, right up there with the right to vote.

Amazingly, however, the right to vote is being seriously threatened in a number of states today in the form of state-mandated voter identification laws. In Pennsylvania, the requirement is being challenged in court based on the absence of any evidence that there is a demonstrated problem of voter fraud and on the dramatic understating of how many people would be affected.

Additionally, it is clear that the state is totally unprepared to handle the anticipated volume of requests for photo identification cards. As in the other states with similar laws, partisan political motives seem to be the real driving force behind the enactment of these requirements.

These efforts at disenfranchisement are a real threat to our democratic values and system of government. The personal views of the chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, however offensive to many, fall into a totally different category.

First of all, because we do have the First Amendment, Dan Cathy can say whatever he wants about the topic of gay marriage without the threat that the government will come after him. A commitment to free speech is one of the critical ways in which the United States really is exceptional.

That the protection has not always been perfectly adhered to — see the McCarthy era in the 1950s as a shameful example — doesn’t lessen the bedrock significance of free speech to political discourse in this country. We also need to acknowledge that there are many costs of protecting the right of individuals to speak their political minds, including having to put up with statements that we may think are offensive, unpatriotic or blatantly false.

And to make matters more complicated, the traditional concept of free speech has been undermined from an unusual quarter in the past few decades. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court was a champion of relatively unfettered speech. More recently, it has, in a series of decisions that pervert any common-sense understanding of the English language, much less the intent of the authors of the First Amendment, ruled that corporations are people and that spending money is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

The reaction to Cathy’s public comments about his opposition to gay marriage and the company’s support of organizations that oppose it has to be seen in the broader context of the contemporary debate about the First Amendment.

While his motives may not be entirely clear, Cathy chose to make his personal views about families, marriage and the correct interpretation of the Bible part of Chick-fil-A’s marketing strategy. To underscore my point, he had every right to do that secure in the knowledge that he would face no official repercussions.

That supporters of gay marriage would react politically and economically is not at all surprising — and is equally within their constitutional rights. They are protected by the same First Amendment that Cathy is invoking. Protesting his position on gay marriage does not violate any of his rights and does not limit his ability to express them. In fact, champions of free-market capitalism should be the first to applaud their actions as a legitimate exercise of their prerogative as consumers.

Whether this debate moves beyond symbolic actions still remains to be seen. Opponents of gay marriage organized an eat-in at Chick-fil-A last week, and quite a lot of people showed up. There was a “kiss-in” sponsored by gay marriage supporters the same week. Will anyone’s fast food eating habits change as the result of this debate? It’s way too early to tell.

On the whole, this debate seems like a healthy one. In comparison with this year’s presidential campaign, it has been remarkably civil. Drumsticks at 20 paces. It has been the expression of opposing political views without spending tens of millions of dollars donated by casino magnates to drive the debate. No one has claimed that the chickens came from Kenya or that global warming would be slowed if people ate more chicken.

In Maryland, the gay marriage ballot question has raised the activity level on both sides of the issue. Cathy’s remarks may not hurt the company in the short run, but he is, to borrow a phrase from Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, clearly on the wrong side of history.

The gay marriage movement is fundamentally about treating all people equally, not trying to impose some people’s values on others, and being respectful of diverse opinions. That’s a description of American exceptionalism that we should all support and very much what the right of free speech was intended to protect.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His experience in public policy includes government, higher education and consulting. His email address is [email protected]