Free Speech and Chicken Shops

by Benjamin Studebaker

Background: recently, chicken shop CEO Dan Cathy said the following:

we’re 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. And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about

The reaction to this has largely divided people into two camps. Opponents view Cathy’s comment as homophobic and bigoted; they’re staging boycotts and modified sit-ins popularly described as “kiss-ins”. Supporters agree with Cathy’s view. However, there has been an interesting backlash to opposition to Cathy’s comment. Some people are saying that, independent of whether or not Cathy is correct, he has the right to his opinion and we must respect it. These people have missed the point of the debate, and, on a more theoretical level, have missed the point of free speech. Here’s why.

The theoretical principle of freedom of speech is grounded in 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s magnum opus, On Liberty. In this volume, Mill makes the case for the liberty as a governing principle broadly. Mill focuses on free speech in particular. Mill says that stifling an opinion and the individuality of the one who voices it through political repression, violence, or imprisonment makes our society an intellectually poorer one. However, when he takes on the arguments of those who believe that freedom of speech will allow the dissemination of stupid or evil beliefs and opinions, he says the following:

We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates.

Mill also puts forth what’s called the harm principle–the notion that liberty should only be limited when it does harm to wider society. He makes great pains to mention that the harm an individual does to himself is not sufficient, and that offense is not a sufficiently serious form of harm.

So, what would Mill have to say about the chicken CEO?

I propose that Mill would, first of all, be a supporter of gay marriage, because its absence does harm to homosexuals while its presence is merely offensive to the sensibilities of some people. Mill would also feel that laws stifling gay marriage were stifling the individuality of homosexuals again in favour of the narrow moral sensibilities of a traditionalist segment of the population. While Mill would personally disagree with Cathy, he would very much support Cathy’s right to voice his opinion–meaning that Mill would not want Cathy to be violently molested or put into prison or shut down by the state.

However, Mill is a consistent supporter of criticism of ideas; he writes that criticism and argument are the means by which the good ideas are sorted from the bad, that they are essential to any policy of free speech. So Mill certainly would not have a problem with criticism of Cathy’s opinion. Furthermore, as Cathy’s opinion is one that sets about limitations to the individuality of others, Mill certainly would not oppose those others or their supporters, in the exercise of that individuality, to avoid going to his restaurants and to caution others against him and his view.

So, to point out that Cathy has “the right to his opinion” and that we must respect it is the historical political philosophical equivalent of saying “don’t hurt Cathy or put him in prison or otherwise stop him from speaking”. These critics do not seem to realise that opponents to Cathy are not trying to hurt him, put him in prison, or otherwise stop him from speaking. They are exercising their individuality and freedom of speech in opposing Cathy’s view, freely disassociating themselves from him and his enterprises, and cautioning others against him and his views.

If freedom of speech meant that we must never, ever criticise anyone for having a different opinion, that every opinion must be totally respected such that no one ever has to confront those with different views, it would be a concept that stifled intellectual growth rather than enhanced it. Criticism is a necessary feature, to stifle criticism of an opinion or an ethic is no better than stifling the voicing of that opinion or ethic in the first place.

It is a peculiar hypocrisy, that those who would protect Cathy and his supporters from criticism and social backlash do so in the interests of protecting an ethic (that of being opposed to gay marriage or homosexuality more broadly) that is itself anti-individualistic and freedom-limiting. It is more understandable when it is observed that this opinion is almost always grounded in religious belief for those who hold it. Our society has a tendency to exempt religious beliefs from the criticism and free scrutiny to which other opinions and ethics are subjected. But, just as freedom of speech means freedom to speak but not freedom to never hear criticism or experience a social backlash, freedom of religions means freedom to believe but not freedom to never hear criticism or experience a social backlash. A man has freedom of religion if he is permitted to practise his religion and voice his beliefs without bodily harm or state harassment–exemption from criticism and the normal rules governing opinion is not part of the bargain, not for the religious beliefs themselves nor for the opinions derived from them. No opinion is so sacred that it is to be protected from argument and criticism. The second one becomes so, it becomes dogmatic and oppressive to the individuality of free people in a free society.

Source List:

Dan Cathy Quote:

On Liberty: