Chick-fil-A, the First Amendment, and the drawing out of a public relations firestorm

Since Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s comments on same-sex marriage one week ago, folks on both sides of the debate have been speaking out. Opinion leaders have publicly shown their support for the fast-food chain, like former Arkansas governor and current talk show host Mike Huckabee, who is orchestrating a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Opinion leaders have publicly denounced the fast-food chain, like the Henson Company, which announced its Muppets characters would no longer be tied to Chick-fil-A promotions. As I wrote last Thursday, choosing a side on a hot-button issue is not going to come without repercussions. From a purely business perspective, the hard-line stance could only harm Chick-fil-A’s bottom line by offending some and turning a trip to the drive-thru into a moral dilemma.

[RELATED: Chick-fil-A on public relations tightrope after latest Cathy same-sex marriage comments]

But in recent days, Chick-fil-A has received some unexpected help in its public relations quagmire from an opposition that has lost its mind and its constitutional principles.

The Boston Chill

I suppose it started in Boston, where the mayor, Thomas M. Menino, wrote a letter to Cathy expressing his disagreement with the company’s sociopolitical position and potential physical position in his city. Menino’s final paragraph:

I was angry to learn on the heels of your prejudiced statements about your search for a site to locate in Boston. There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it. When Massachusetts became the first state in the country to recognize equal marriage rights, I personally stood on City Hall Plaza to greet same sex couples coming here to be married. It would be an insult to them and to our city’s long history of expanding freedom to have a Chick-fil-A across the street from that spot.

“I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston,” Menino wrote earlier in the letter.

All of a sudden, a government figure was involved in the debate, threatening to prevent a business from locating to his jurisdiction based entirely on political differences. Then again, Menino didn’t specifically say he’d prevent Chick-fil-A from opening locations in Boston, only that he really didn’t want them to do so. One could argue that Menino is exercising the very same First Amendment right to free speech as Cathy. Taking a government office does not ban the sharing of opinions (far from it, in fact). Menino’s comments, then, could be construed the same as the Henson Company’s from a First Amendment perspective.

On the other hand, one could argue that Menino’s urging could be seen more as a threat. That the mayor’s comments chill free speech by suggesting the possibility of punishment from the government. That doesn’t fly, constitutionally. But it also requires reading into the intentions of written words. So Menino’s comments, to this point, may offend Chick-fil-A supporters, but they probably don’t infringe upon anyone’s First Amendment rights. To do that, some government figure would have to specifically blockade Chick-fil-A from establishing a presence in a jurisdiction based upon the company’s same-sex marriage position. And who would be that overzealous?

The Chicago Stiffarm

Meet Joe Moreno. The Chicago alderman announced Wednesday that he would not allow Chick-fil-A to build a restaurant in his ward, even though they have already obtained zoning. (The proposed location, as luck would have it, places the active critic of same-sex marriage in front of an active LGBT advocate Home Depot.)

The bombastic Moreno made perfectly clear his reasoning, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“If you are discriminating against a segment of the community, I don’t want you in the 1st Ward,” Moreno said, referring to Cathy’s comments as “bigoted” and “homophobic.”

And then the kicker:

“Because of this man’s ignorance, I will now be denying Chick-fil-A’s permit to open a restaurant in the 1st Ward.”

Now a government – the City of Chicago, via a hotheaded first-term alderman – is punishing a business for what its leadership believes. If that’s not encroachment upon freedom of speech, I’m not sure what is.

Should Chick-fil-A pursue the matter in court, it would be an interesting case, especially since Chicago has a long-standing history of “aldermanic privilege” in deciding hyperlocal issues and since Moreno is claiming that he has other reasons for blocking the restaurant like traffic and parking. We will probably never know, because Chick-fil-A will likely just choose a different location in a more welcoming part of the Windy City (The Tribune reports that Moreno’s stance is firmly supported by his constituents, even if he has gone about it in an unconstitutional manner).

Since the Supreme Court’s healthcare decision, everyone on social media is a constitutional scholar, so some additional legal tidbits are worth noting here. First, another example of the wide net of protected speech. While Moreno was taking specific action against Chick-fil-A based upon Cathy’s speech, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued the following statement:

“Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values. They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents. This would be a bad investment, since it would be empty.”

Emanuel’s statement – from a position of governmental power, certainly hostile to the restaurant – is not in violation of the First Amendment. The mayor can dislike Cathy all he wants and shout it from the rooftops. His point about the restaurant being empty – that’s an illustration of community censorship or self censorship. If a neighborhood boycotts a business and chases them out of town, that’s their right of response. Kind of like how law enforcement can’t do anything about the Westboro Baptist Church spewing hatred, but citizens can mount counterprotests and drown out the noise.

Second, this would be a totally different story if Chick-fil-A the company actively discriminated against the LGBT community in its hiring practices. That would be illegal. But that’s simply not the case.

The Rallying Cry

Legal mumbo jumbo aside, what does it all mean? First, it means a victory for Chick-fil-A in the face of growing scrutiny. These government actions fuel the restaurant’s supporters. Now they are angry. Now the story has gotten turned upside down.

Now the character cast as the discriminator in the story is the victim.

When this began, all of the motivation was on the side of same-sex marriage proponents. They were the ones offended. They were the ones leading the action. Support for Chick-fil-A was there, but a lot of it was because of a more general ethic and tasty chicken. Now, through a bit of careless government rhetoric and one really dumb abuse of power, the traditional marriage camp feels like it’s been attacked, not just for its political beliefs but for its religious convictions. Now, there is spirit behind the action. Now, there is Huckabee’s unofficial Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, scheduled for Aug. 1. Ordering a chicken sandwich has never carried such moral and political implications.

Because of what’s happening in Chicago, even those who support same-sex marriage are coming to the defense of Chick-fil-A. It’s changed the trajectory of the discussion, which is good for the company. But it has also prolonged the discussion, which is not so good for the company whose initial statement was to please just forget about it and move on.

“Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” read a statement on the Chick-fil-A Facebook page after Cathy’s series of interviews.

Yet it is the government itself that keeps pulling them back in. And the longer things drag on, the greater chance someone unsympathetic to Cathy’s views decides they’ve had enough of the whole conflict and passes by the Chick-fil-A for the KFC.

Case and point Case in point: just before finalizing this post, I did a Google News search for “Chick-fil-A.” This morning, two new headlines have emerged, both reflecting poorly on the restaurant. First, the restaurant yanked the kids’ meal Muppet toys that represent the final partnership between Chick-fil-A and the Henson Company. In a move eerily similar to Alderman Moreno’s insistence that his zoning fight has more to do with traffic, Chick-fil-A has decided to cite the safety risk of a child’s finger getting stuck in a puppet.

Next, an allegation is quickly making the Web rounds that Chick-fil-A created a fictitious Facebook account to defend the company on its Facebook page. The profile, created just a few days ago, claimed to be a teenage girl, but she was quickly called out by users who noticed she only joined Facebook a few days prior and was using a ShutterStock royalty-free “Teenager isolated on white smiling stock photo.”

The account was deleted soon after. Chick-fil-A denies any involvement.

Both incidents might be completely overblown. Maybe the puppets really were a safety risk. Maybe (probably) the fake Facebook account was made by some regular old Chick-fil-A fan who thought (s)he was helping. But that’s not the point. The point is that this story won’t go away, and every little morsel of new information is flying around the Internet, surrounded by allegations and defenses from both sides that now each have reasons to be upset.

And Chick-fil-A remains caught in the middle of an ever-escalating argument they want nothing to do with. Such are the risks of standing up for one’s convictions in spite of their controversial nature. If Dan Cathy didn’t know that before, he surely does today.

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3 thoughts on “Chick-fil-A, the First Amendment, and the drawing out of a public relations firestorm”

  1. This post got a lot of buzz on Facebook. What some people were saying:

    Eleanor: Good piece, Dylan. I think it’s laughable that government officials think threatening to block them from opening is a good response. I think people just want a way to make a bigger statement/protest than a one time protest or the only real effective/legal way to do it- don’t eat there if you don’t like it.

    Matt: It’s “case in point,” not “case and point.”

    Shawn: Wow, Dylan. You are a tremendous writer! I really enjoyed your article. Is there a way for me to subscribe to your posts? I have an Android. Let me know. Thanks!

    Matthew: See the law books. We already have in state law or in city ordinances that prohibit businesses from opening. Mississippi is notorious for it, and a lot of them are supported by churches, are for the benefit of churches, or are to restrict or prohibit certain activities from taking place near schools.The actions of the Boston mayor and the Chicago mayor (I’ve read the Boston letter, and am basing my Chicago actions off your blog due to time constraints) are reasonable actions to take. They are political public statements made to voice their opposition to Chick-fil-a’s location in their city, but do not prohibit Chick-fil-a from locating there. For example, politicians in the past have come out against having strip clubs and liquor stores located next to churches (Jackson’s strip clubs have all been relocated to the west street corridor south of downtown), but there really is no reason why they can’t be right next to First Baptist, since First Baptist is located in a business district in a prime real estate location.

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