Boycotts Are a Form of Speech

By Froma Harrop

January 19, 2017 5 min read

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 [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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