June 16, 2005

Boycotts and Free Speech

The L.A. Weekly has a disturbing piece about Christian groups that are organizeing boycotts against companies that support the world-famous radical homosexual agenda™:
Just three weeks ago, the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) announced it was ending its boycott of corporate giant Procter & Gamble — maker of household staples like Tide and Crest — for being pro-gay. Why? Because the AFA's boycott (which the organization says enlisted 400,000 families) had succeeded in getting P&G to pull its millions of dollars in advertising from TV shows like Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. P&G also ended its advertising in gay magazines and on gay Web sites. And a P&G executive who had been given a leave of absence to work on a successful Cincinnati, Ohio, referendum that repealed a ban on any measures protecting gays from discrimination was shown the door. …

But the P&G cave-in to the Christers is only the tip of the iceberg. In just the past year and a half, AFA protests and boycotts — or even the simple threat of boycotts — have been enough to make a host of American companies pull their ads from TV shows the Christers consider pro-gay or salacious. Desperate Housewives has lost ads from Safeway, Tyson Foods, Liberty Mutual, Kohl’s, Alberto Culver, Leapfrog and Lowe’s after the AFA’s One Million Dads campaign targeted the show’s sponsors. Life as We Know It got the same AFA treatment — and lost ads from McCormick, Lenscrafters, Radio Shack, Papa John’s International, Chattem and Sharpie.
This sort of thing, it seems, is far, far more widespread than people are really aware of. Now I don't quite understand the word "Christer" here—is that a popular new phrase I'm unaware of?—but the underlying issue here seems somewhat tricky. Clearly there's nothing unconstitutional about organizing these sorts of boycotts; they certainly don't violate the First Amendment, and as far as I know, boycotts of these sorts are actually protected under the First Amendment. But is it still okay for this sort of thing to run rampant?

Corporations, of course, can express themselves however they want, and for the most part can "say" what they want. But they still have a responsibility to their shareholders, first and foremost, so any sort of action that undercuts shareholder value—like, for instance, provoking a boycott—is something that companies have, in a sense, no right to do. Certainly when liberals organized a boycott of Sinclair Broadcasting right before the election, over the company's plans to air an anti-Kerry movie in late October, that was the argument used. But couldn't this go too far? What if a company, say, started demurring from hiring Republicans—or those who champion the "radical homosexual agenda"—because doing so would provoke boycotts and undercut shareholder value? If that was the case, wouldn't we say something's gone badly awry? (And that is the case with the P&G boycott, which led to one pro-gay executive being fired.)

Can't say there's an easy answer here. Obviously liberals organize boycotts all the time, and, at least from a liberal standpoint, they really can accomplish a great deal of good: sticking it to sweatshop sponsors like Nike and Gap, for instance. But here we're seeing organized boycotts doing a great deal of harm; namely, limiting broader public discussion about homosexuality by forcing those who would sponsor pro-gay viewpoints to back down or suffer the consequences. Again, this isn't a First Amendment violation, but there's clearly a great deal of intimidation against free speech going on. So is there any sort of meaningful distinction here, between, say, the Sinclair boycott and this, or do you have to just accept the harm that boycotts can do with the good? Intuitively, I think you do, and the Christian boycotts described above should be fought with private action (say, public consumer support for companies targeted by the AFA) rather than, say, laws or regulations or the creation of a social norm against boycotting. But I'm open to argument here.
-- Brad Plumer 3:19 AM || ||