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Freedom of Speech, Not Gay Rights, Was Central in the Chick fil A Debate

Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, sparked quite an intense debate with his recent reaffirmation of the traditional definition of marriage. When a Chicago alderman and the mayors of Boston and Chicago tell a business to go build somewhere else, things have gotten out of hand.

Legally speaking, there is no doubt that blocking a company due to the opinions of the CEO would violate the Constitution and be indefensible in a court of law. This was later acknowledged with the Chicago mayor’s office releasing a statement, “if they [Chick-fil-A] met all the usual requirements, they could open their restaurant, but their values aren’t reflective of our city.”

With so much of the focus being on the discussion of same-sex marriage, the root of this debate has become obscured. This is about freedom of speech. The media has failed to highlight the most disturbing aspect of mayors and other officials recent statements —the use of governmental positions to intimidate a business for its words. This is disconcerting at many levels, but most particularly because Rahm Emanuel is the current mayor of Chicago, the largest city in Illinois and the third most-populous city in the U.S., and a former Obama White House chief of staff.

Emanuel served as chief of staff from January 2009 until October 2010, 21 months as the highest ranking employee of the White House office in the Executive office. The chief of staff is considered the “gatekeeper” to the president and is often given the nickname “co-president.” That such a lack of respect for the First Amendment comes from somebody who served in one of the highest ranking positions in the federal government should be disturbing.

Adam Schwartz, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, addressed the foundational problem by stating, “The ACLU strongly supports same-sex marriage, but we also support the First Amendment. We don’t think the government should exclude Chick-fil-A because of the anti-LGBT message.” Schwartz recognizes that if government can silence someone else today, they might silence him tomorrow.

Apparently not everyone makes this connection. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has called for New York University to remove Chick-fil-A from campus. 

“Let me be clear . . . I do not want establishments in my city that hold such discriminatory views,” Quinn wrote. “We are a city that believes our diversity is our greatest strength and we will fight anything and anyone that runs counter to that.” 

My question, Quinn, is how can you celebrate diversity (difference, variety) when you want everyone to agree with you? When did we lose sight that protecting speech, and subsequently human liberty, may require me to allow you to say something I find offensive? And vice-versa.

Freedom of speech, and in particular, religious freedom of speech, is eroding in our society. If this is allowed to happen, we will have lost the best restraint against the abuse of governmental power. The ability to speak freely is one of the most unique and powerful freedoms granted to us in the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Freedom of speech is required for true democracy to exist. It is at the core of our country’s foundation. May we never take it for granted and defend it always.

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