Commentary: The Feature That Comes With Chick-fil-A’s Free Speech

The First Amendment doesn't quite tell the whole story of free speech.

Posted: 08/02/2012 05:42 PM EDT
Chick-fil-A

One of the rich glories of the United States Constitution is its First Amendment. Most notably, it provides American citizens with the right to free speech. Among the other prominent provisions of the First Amendment is not just freedom of the press, but also the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

These days, these constitutional components are likely to be paramount in the mind of Dan T. Cathy, the president of fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A, with a clarity and urgency he has not known until now.

In the last two weeks, Cathy commented publicly about what he called his Bible-based opposition to same-sex marriage. The head of the popular fast-food chain stated that he operates a family-run business that supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Furthermore, he said supporting same-sex marriage provokes “God’s judgment on our nation.”

Not surprisingly, Cathy’s comments unleashed a torrent of media coverage, all manner of demonstrations and public pronouncements from high-profile figures ranging from the mayors of New York, Boston and San Francisco to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Chicago and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That doesn't include the ruckus the issue has created on Facebook and Twitter.

In their demonstrations and public statements, Cathy’s supporters have been emphatic about the fact that the chicken-sandwich magnate has the right to state publicly his firm opposition to same-sex unions. In championing his view, they implicitly charge that the sharp criticisms aimed at Cathy comes from those who believe he had no right to state his views publicly — a right he most definitely possesses.

The problem for Cathy comes from a reality for which the First Amendment offers no warning whatsoever: Speaking your mind has consequences. 

While he might have expected to have like-minded Americans rally to his side, he must surely have anticipated that his comments would ignite equally impassioned national criticism. If you don’t mind having your business being better known for being anti-gay than for the quality of its chicken sandwiches, then feel free to say what Cathy has.

In short, say whatever you like, but be prepared for the consequences.

This is not the same nation that it was when Chick-fil-A was founded in Georgia in 1967. 

We now live in a nation where same-sex marriages have been approved by eight states and Washington, D.C., and the issue is on the ballot in November in four states. The president of the United States has endorsed same-sex marriage. We now regularly see same-sex couples on television. Wedding announcements of gay and lesbian couples are now commonplace in that staple of American journalism, The New York Times. 

Cathy’s public stance was bound to stir a media-fueled controversy. It was inevitable.

The lesson here is clear: The First Amendment is an American treasure but it doesn’t warn of the heat that is frequently found in the kitchen of free speech.



The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.



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