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Yes, Political Boycotts Are A Form Of Free Speech

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Yes, Political Boycotts Are A Form Of Free Speech

Boycott, Trump

Liberals have organized a campaign to boycott Simon & Schuster over its planned publication of a book by alt-right bad boy Milo Yiannopoulos. Is this boycott a form of censorship?

Wendy Kaminer, a civil liberties lawyer, argues that progressives should be troubled by “the chilling effect of consumer book boycotts on speech.”

I disagree. A consumer boycott does not muzzle anyone. No one is saying that Yiannopoulos can’t type what he wants or that Simon & Schuster can’t publish his product. But the right to buy something implies the right not to buy something. Boycotts are also a form of speech.

That said, I happen to share Kaminer’s dim view of this particular boycott. She’s right that exacting economic harm on Simon & Schuster over an objectionable author is counterproductive. It showers a creepy individual with free publicity while potentially hurting a company that publishes varied and valuable perspectives.

Campaigns to boycott companies, places or organizations have a long history in this country and elsewhere. The causes they support and the results they bring about are a decidedly mixed bag.

American colonists boycotted the purchase of British products to protest what they considered unfair taxation by the mother country. In 1773, a campaign to boycott tea specifically became pointless after men disguised as Indians boarded British ships in Boston harbor and threw the tea overboard, in what became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The modern civil rights movement was launched by African-Americans refusing to patronize buses with segregated seating in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Montgomery, Alabama. Most of the passengers were black, so their boycott caused economic hardship for the bus operators. Most of their demands were eventually met.

More recently, the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores became the target of a boycott after it challenged the Affordable Care Act mandate that employer-provided insurance cover birth control without a copay. The owners argued that the birth control requirement went counter to their religious views, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

For me, an occasional home sewer, the Hobby Lobby owners’ personal views on birth control were a matter of indifference. But their singling out of this basic medical need for women — out of all the other health services offered — was not. I haven’t stepped foot in their stores since.

North Carolina has faced some serious boycotts since its lawmakers passed a bill that quashed local ordinances letting transgender people use the bathrooms of their choice. Several companies announced they wouldn’t expand there, and the NBA and NCAA said they would not hold high-profile games in the state.

Some boycotts are ridiculous. From the left, you have the boycott of New Balance sneakers because of a misunderstood remark by a company executive supporting an aspect of Donald Trump’s trade agenda (to the extent anyone understands it).

On the right, you have the annual “boycott” of Starbucks over its decision to make its holiday cups less Christmassy than some want. This year, Trump chimed in: “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.”

I put the word boycott in quotes because some of his followers thought they’d register their displeasure by going into Starbucks and buying its coffee. The flourish of protest was to give their name to the coffee makers as “Trump.” Like the harried baristas cared whether they wrote “Trump” or “Fidel” on the cup.

Obviously, there are effective boycotts and ineffective ones, stupid boycotts and well-directed ones, boycotts by the right, left and middle. The point here is that for whatever reason, a person has a right to withhold his or her custom. Freedom of speech doesn’t end at the cash register.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Workers from Trump Hotel Las Vegas visited Trump Tower in New York City, where they delivered a letter asking Mr. Trump to meet with his unionized workers. Flickr/Suzie Mills

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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  1. Dominick Vila January 19, 2017

    Sadly, many 21st century Americans don’t have the same values, determination, and courage that prevailed among those who risk their lives during the Boston Tea Party. We have become a plutocracy, where the right to free speech is limited to the rich and powerful, and demonized when it is exercised by the poor and disenfranchised.

  2. Bill Smith 999935 January 19, 2017

    It’s ok until someone doesn’t want to make a wedding cake.

    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

      Then make your own wedding cake, homey. Are you daft? Learn to read with deeper insight rather than your standard superficial Fast-Food reading technique.

      1. Bill Smith 999935 January 19, 2017

        Oh, I read the entire article and understand it very well – then the last paragraph, with it’s hypocritical conclusion, made me laugh.

        1. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

          *its, not it’s

      2. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

        Bill is – hilariously – a closet homosexual. It’s actually kinda sad.

    2. I of John January 19, 2017

      That is the point. If a business does not want to bake the cake that is fine n dandy. But if people see this lack of service as unfair because it’s discrimination, then they have every right to boycott.

    3. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

      OK thanks Gay Bill.

  3. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

    This article like so many excellent articles reiterates a basic pattern of confusion afflicting American society. The boycott is a strong way of voicing displeasure with unfair and/or illegal practices, and in an open and diverse society like America one can selectively send a strong message that targets a specific producer/distributor while leaving the opportunity for buyers to look elsewhere for similar products.

    But why should one have to be forced to wage a boycott in the first place? One main reason may be that in today’s world the disconnect between humans has become exacerbated as a result of an intense focus on materialism which in turn causes many to adopt antisocial attitudes, thus alienating them further from other members of society. In response, the buyers feel aggrieved, and the best way to show your displeasure with the antisocial/misanthropic attitude of the seller is by refusing to deal with her/him on an economic basis. In the meantime, mature people(both producer and consumer) will have conversations to relieve the tensions to establish stability and normalization.

    The Trump phenomenon, the GOP’s inordinate materialist ideology, and a general inefficacy of majority status quo religious institutions bring social instability and general animus in America into clearer focus.

    1. Just A Citizen January 19, 2017


      You will have to explain further why you think “materialism” causes anti social behavior.

      Wouldn’t the desire to trade for more stuff drive people to be more sociable, instead of less?

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

        It’s elementary dear Watson—it’s all there for the person that takes the time to survey history, observe trends, and reads the accounts of the lives of the Messengers who appeared in the past and whose records we are fortunate to have on paper, i.e., the Bible(Old and New testament), the Qur’an, and a plethora of Baha’i literature in the hand-writing of Baha’u’llah Himself, and His eldest son, Abdu’l Baha, and great grandson, Shoghi Effendi. You don’t have to read all those sources—I wouldn’t expect you would have the time nor the interest.
        If you would just concentrate on Europe and America, you should note the relationship in the rise of excessive concern for acquiring things in life, both necessary and lots of trivial luxuries(refer to Trump as an example); at the same time and as a precursor, Religion as an institution has gone into decline as a direct result in the shift of emphasis from spiritual to material matters. There is a relationship, perhaps unseen to you for now.

        America’s obsession with grabbing land from the American Indians, the raping, pillaging, and forced removal of Native people was extremely anti-social, as was slavery—an institution used in order to work the land profitably. Slavery is an anti-social practice. Consider your own status–Are you as concerned about your spiritual growth and making friends with people from different countries and races, or are you consumed with your own material well-being?

        I don’t need to trade stuff to make friends with people or to learn another language so that I can greet people in their language when I visit their country. This is all you and others can think of—friendship and being social which must be done for material goods. That is an ass-backwards approach to being spiritual. Material goods are important and shouldn’t be ignored, but for God’s sake don’t make that your primary reason for living.

        I strongly suggest you share this insight with your family and friends, and please check out http://www.bahai.org if you want to find out what makes me tick and write the way I do.

        1. Just A Citizen January 20, 2017

          I don’t know a single person who works for more in order to be more sociable or to be like more by others.

          Your problem is mistaking materialism as the cause when it is just the symptom.

          I assure you I am not asleep. And I don’t need some magic to make me whole. I am quite fine thank you.

  4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

    In Jackson, Miss. in the 60’s, the best way I and other black people could fight back against Jim Crow was to refuse to do business or have dealings with the perpetrators of Jim Crow. When a Christian Science Church in Jackson refused to let my father entry on one Sunday because he was black, he made a choice to look for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere, and he was mysteriously led via delivering letters with “Baha’i” on the envelope to a woman’s home on his postal route; he asked her about it one day, and was introduced to the Baha’is in Jackson who met together despite the restriction of integrated meetings. As a youth in high school learning of this encounter and his discovery of the Baha’i Faith I was intrigued that a multi-racial group had the quiet courage to refuse to buckle under to segregation because Baha’u’llah forbade such a mentality and practice—the same phenomenon of bucking racism was demonstrated by the Baha’is in Apartheid South Africa and Namibia, where Baha’is had been meeting since the 50’s as a multiracial community, unlike other religious communities that caved in to apartheid’s restrictions. That form of protest by my dad encouraged me to look into this strange new religion which I had never heard of and remained suspicious of for a year. Afterwards by my senior year in high school, I was convinced that this was the way forward.
    And now, we have a similar dynamic, not as overt and not legal, yet still practiced in politics, in housing distribution, school systems, and in many cases still within religious communities(refer to “Mississippi Praying” for more on this trend of racial segregation, aided and abetted by white churches throughout the South during that era and now).

  5. I of John January 19, 2017

    Boycotts are absolutely free speech in a capitalistic world. It may well be one of the few mechanisms that keeps us from being enslaved by corporate power.

    1. Just A Citizen January 19, 2017

      I disagree that boycotts are “speech”. They are organized coercion.

      That was the original intent of boycotts and it remains so today.

      You do not boycott to be heard. You boycott to cause change.

      And lately that seems to mean that the person being boycotted is expected to change their public opinions, remain silent or even convert to another persons viewpoint.

      Like all coercive tools, boycotts should be used selectively.

      1. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

        “You must obey the rich!” declared the traitor.

        1. Just A Citizen January 20, 2017

          The sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

          1. I Am Helpy January 20, 2017

            “Now to change the topic away from my treason with inane gibberish!” said the traitor.

  6. 1Zoe55 January 19, 2017

    If it’s true that Trumpf has not paid the five million dollars owed to the contractors who built his hotel near the White House, I’ve wondered why those contractors have not placed a Mechanics’ Lien on the hotel. That lien would close down the hotel, hitting Trumpf in his pockets which is the most effective way to get paid and to anger the Orange One.

    1. Jim Samaras January 19, 2017

      Because it may not be true or work was not done to completion. Believe me, if they had a leg to stand on they would be doing just that! Leads one to believe the claim to be propaganda.

      1. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

        “Aristocrats are above the law!” exclaimed the traitor.

      2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

        And you say that with certainty. Were you a foreman on the job, or were you in Trump’s employ as a bookkeeper?
        If you’re not certain about the claim, then spare us your fawning for Trump’s benefit.

        1. Jim Samaras January 19, 2017

          Aaron, that’s exactly my point. Unless we were part of the deal it’s all conjecture. I’m simply pointing out what could possibly be the other side of the argument.

          1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 20, 2017

            Jim, given Trump’s abysmal record of behavior and stiffing workers as though he would go broke if he acted in good faith, makes any allegation of Trump worth investigating, even if we don’t know for certain every outcome of every deal he’s been involved in. You need to start evaluating Trump on history and not on wishful thinking that he’s going to wake up the next day and be rational, civil, and act like a normal human being.
            Trump has exposed himself to the world as someone who is untrustworthy, lewd, boorish, with very little, if any, redeeming characteristics other than knowing how to make money for himself—a life-long endeavor trumping all other matters.
            You need to break free of your subjectivity re: Trump, and learn to be objective. Partisan political fanaticism clouds the reasoning faculties and makes one dependent on their guts.

  7. itsfun January 19, 2017

    I don’t like boycotts. Many employees can lose their jobs for no really good reason. A young college student serving coffee to make a few bucks shouldn’t lose his/her job because somebody doesn’t like the corporate policies.

    1. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

      Yeah, but to be fair you’re an utter moron. Who cares what your dumb racist opinion is?

    2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

      As I told someone else, you’ve demoted yourself to be inundated with politics and seeing things with a totally materialist attitude. Every post you’ve written makes no mention whatsoever about morality, acquiring virtues, and exhibiting a noble attitude. Your direction in life leads you more to an animal-like existence, mainly concerned with reflex defensive posture, a belligerence, with little signs of ever being engaged in higher thinking. The mind and it’s proper cultivation is what distinguishes you from the animal. Without that, you are closer to being like a beast of the field than a noble creation which is your birth right. It’s a pity to see a human being using the animal as a model for how to behave, rather than turning towards your Creator and His Messengers as an example. Trump, the GOP, and your neighbor across the street shouldn’t be your primary role-models for cultivating spiritual values. By investigating on your own, the Message of Baha’u’llah, and not relying on me for the real okie dokie, then you’ll rediscover who you are meant to be.

  8. Just A Citizen January 19, 2017

    If you have a right to not shop at my store shouldn’t I have the same right to refuse you service??

    1. I Am Helpy January 19, 2017

      “Why shouldn’t I be allowed to commit treason and sedition?” asked the traitor.

      1. Just A Citizen January 20, 2017

        Because it would be treason and sedition of course. Surely you understand that.

        1. I Am Helpy January 20, 2017

          “I am literally stupid enough to think this will work” chuckled the traitor to himself, alone in the trailer.

    2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 19, 2017

      A foolish question asked by a child citizen. Taking the reverse of what shop owners in the South did on a regular basis lacks creativity on your part. Go back to the drawing board, wash your brain out and return with a better response, please?

      1. Just A Citizen January 20, 2017

        I’m sorry that was to complicated for you. Its OK, you can play with someone else if you prefer.

        Otherwise stop deflecting and answer the question.

        1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 20, 2017

          OK, you just continue being a citizen of The Twilight Zone, or wherever you reside.

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