Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Chick-Fil-A


In honour of Pride Week here in Vancouver, I can think of no better time to wade into the growing Chick-fil-A row currently ruffling the feathers of our southern neighbours.

For those who don’t follow American news (it’s not like we’re a different country or anything), Chick-fil-A is a US-based fast-food chain whose President, Dan Cathy, is known for supporting anti-gay Christian groups. The controversy boiled over in recent weeks with a couple of high-profile interviews in which Cathy expressed his opposition to gay marriage: “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” and “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'”

While some regard such literal interpretations of scripture as praiseworthy (no word yet where he stands on mixing more than one fabric in a single garment), the mayors of Boston and Chicago responded by saying that the restaurant’s expansion is not welcome in their cities. Predictably, anti-gay apologists like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee declared this past Wednesday Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, and the hateful hordes turned out right on cue.

To my mind, the sight of thousands of Americans lining up at Chick-fil-A locations across the country to show their support — clogging their arteries for bigotry — suggests that government efforts to silence hate speech do not work. The pattern is a familiar one. Preachers of intolerance claim they are being persecuted by an intolerant government, and public sympathy for the poor little martyrs is cultivated. What is really a civil rights issue — marriage equality — is being turned into a free speech one, and millions of Americans are now convinced of the absurd notion that homophobes are the ones being victimized.

A much better approach than that taken by the Boston and Chicago mayors is for reasonable people to make reasonable arguments on why Dan Cathy is wrong. And, of course, for comedians to ruthlessly make fun of him and his supporters. Nothing more effectively demonstrates the ridiculousness of a position than its well-deserved ridicule. But to give homophobes the opportunity to distract the public with charges of censorship is counterproductive and puts at risk the trend of steadily increasing support for gay marriage in American society.

After all, if the goal isn’t to convince the public, then what is it?