Scene: A coffee shop.
Calvin the Customer: Hi William, I’ll just have a coffee. How are you doing, by the way?
William the Waiter: I’m fine, and I’ll get your coffee. But just so you know, I really think you are morally repugnant.
Calvin the Customer: That’s a terrible thing for you to say. I don’t think I’m going to come to this coffee shop anymore.
William the Waiter: Why won’t you respect my right to free speech?
Marge the Manager: Yeah, when I think of William, I think of a good person just exercising his free speech rights. Why are you so intolerant, Calvin?
Does this fictional conversation sound absurd to you? It does to me, but it’s not very different from the public discourse surrounding Chick-fil-a, which was in the news again over the weekend.
In my silly coffee-shop scene, Marge is engaged in what I’d call the Free Speech Deflection: When somebody has trouble defending another person’s offensive statement (even though he or she agrees with it), or feels embarrassed about defending that statement, he or she changes the subject by professing respect for the person’s right to speak.
Over the weekend, a certain vice-presidential contender avoided saying anything of substance about the Chick-fil-a controversy, instead referring to the right to free speech. (See the links above.) But this is not a free speech issue, and it’s unhelpful to pretend that it is. Nobody is censoring Chick-fil-a. Sure, they are criticizing the company and its president. But free speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Criticism, including harsh criticism, is just another form of free speech. And the press does us all a disservice by allowing people to avoid the real issues here, which are equality, inclusion and respect.
I suppose the Free Speech Deflection signals progress in some ways: Many defenders of Chick-fil-a don’t want to admit that they agree with the company president’s extreme anti-gay views, so they pretend the whole controversy is a matter of free speech.
I recognize that a few liberal mayors made some unhelpful remarks about blocking Chick-fil-a from opening local establishments because of the anti-gay sentiments expressed by the company president. This could raise real free speech issues if anything were to come of it. But I seriously doubt anything will come of it. There’s just no serious argument to be made that the company’s free speech rights, or the free speech rights of its president, have truly ever been in jeopardy. On the contrary, their viewpoints have been quite freely broadcasted around the world. I think that’s unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean I oppose anybody’s right to free speech.