Recently, political has-been Rick Santorum was having a hissy fit on CNBC about the Chick-fil-A controversy. Many people have called for a boycott of Chick-fil-A, myself included, due to the company's funding of extreme fundamentalist organizations and its anti-gay public positions.
A tiny handful of politicians went too far, however, threatening to use regulatory powers of local government to deny business, or zoning permits to the restaurant, in order to punish the owners, Don Cathy and his family, for their anti-gay views.
Such a move would be highly unconstitutional and a blatant assault on the First Amendment. If conservatives denied permits to businesses owned by individuals vocal in their support of marriage equality, there would be an outcry. So it was with this case.
Almost immediately, mainstream liberals started criticizing these threats. Conservatives, however, tended to look the other way and noticed only the minority position of these publicity-seeking office holders. Santorum huffed that the controversy shows "the absolute intolerance of the Left in America. There can be no dissent from what their position is."
This comes from a man who wants government censorship of erotica, the Internet and video games -- for a start. Over at the neo-con publication Commentary, Bethany Mandel claimed that liberal tolerance "only extends to those who agree with their worldview."
If the Chick-fil-A case shows anything, it shows that the liberal mainstream quickly and soundly condemned those politicians who would misuse regulatory powers to punish speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union -- a favorite target of conservatives -- came out fighting. Adam Schwartz, senior attorney for the Illinois ACLU said "government cannot... punish someone for their words." He noted that Alderman Joe Moreno is "practicing viewpoint discrimination" when he "refuses to allow a business to open because its owner has expressed a viewpoint that the government disagrees with."
Mother Jones magazine has a reputation of being pretty far left of center, yet they said Moreno's policy "is a violation of Cathy's First Amendment rights. Boston and Chicago have no more right to stop construction of Chick-fil-A based on an executive's anti-gay views than New York City would have had to block construction of an Islamic community center blocks away from Ground Zero."
Of course, at that time Santorum was arguing that the building of the Islamic center "is not whether it's a legal right to do it. People have legal rights to do lots of things in this country. But we have zoning laws, and we have an issue that I think is very important."
In other words, long before most people ever heard of Alderman Moreno, Santorum was on national television suggesting that zoning laws be used to restrict the views of Muslims. Now he has the audacity to pretend he's a defender of tolerance and free speech!
Mother Jones was right to note that the kind of restrictions Moreno -- and before him Santorum -- proposed, are "a clear threat to everyone's freedom of speech." Rather rare for them, the magazine suggested, "the politicians should get out of the way."
What the fringe Right likes to call the "lamestream media" was also vocal -- defending the speech rights of Don Cathy. Over at Time, Michael Scherer, defended the right of politicians to "to voice their own views. It is another thing for them to threaten businesses with the power of their elected office for not sharing those views."
The Boston Herald responded to Mayor Thomas Menino's similar threat to the chain by asking "Which part of the First Amendment does Menino not understand?" They correctly opined "If the mayor of a conservative town tried to keep out gay-friendly Starbucks or Apple, it would be an outrage."
Menino quickly backtracked regarding his treat to stop the business from opening in Boston: "I can't do that. That would be interference to his rights to go there. I make mistakes all the time. That's a Meninoism."
The liberal Los Angeles Times editorialized against attempts to restrict Chick-fil-A and said that Menino's original threat would "trample the free-speech rights of others." They noted that it was freedom of speech that lead Boston to change as well.
"Boston used to be known as the prudish place most likely to ban anything outside of a set of strait-laced moral beliefs. Without freedom to express once unpopular viewpoints -- in this case, full civil rights for gay and lesbian couples -- Massachusetts wouldn't have become the first state to recognize same-sex marriage."
The posturing of Menino and Moreno, was not just legally questionable but political destructive -- and to the very people they claim they wish to help. A few days ago, the entire focus was on the bigotry of Chick-fil-A's owner. Overnight, these ill-conceived positions made Don Cathy appear the battered victim and shifted focus of the debate away from his intolerance. That hurt, not helped, the LGBT community.
However, contrary to what commentators on the Right, such as Santorum claimed, this issue doesn't prove "liberal intolerance," but quite the opposite. When a couple politicians of a liberal bent proposed trampling on the First Amendment, they were slapped down quickly and solidly.
It would have been nice to see conservatives respond the same way when Mr. Santorum suggested zoning laws be used to stop the Islamic center in New York City. While I'm glad he had a sudden conversion to the First Amendment in regards to Chick-fil-A, I fear Santorum's newfound tolerance won't extend much further.
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