That isn’t a call for a toast. It’s a topic that made the news this week in two different cases.
To start the week, some self-appointed, self-righteous, self-described marketing specialist in California made headlines with a call to boycott L.L. Bean. The company’s sin? Linda Bean, one of many owners of the family business and a board member, had the nerve to be a Republican. Bean was a supporter of Carly Fiorina in the primary. When it became clear Donald Trump had won the GOP nomination, she supported her party’s standard bearer. The audacity!
Nevermind that L.L. Bean is one of the largest employers in our state or that Linda was a leader, along with John Hathaway and many others, of the effort to get the Maine lobster fishery certified as sustainable. Nevermind that Linda Bean herself is a noted philanthropist, donating over $3 million to Maine’s LifeFlight just 3 years ago.
No, because this Californian has a political difference of opinion, she saw it fit to call for one of two options: economic harm to a Maine business or jettisoning Ms. Bean from the company that shares her name, likely leaving relationships within their family torn apart. Quite a way to start 2017.
The doublespeak from this nascent “boycott” movement is astounding. From their website, they proclaim “we are strongly in favor of free expression and wary of placing individuals on the boycott list merely for their opinion.” In what context is this noble sentiment offered? When they explain why actors and musicians who support Donald Trump should not be subject to the financial snub. Convenient that this Californian group does not believe high-earning California residents should be subject to the same economic dragooning they want to inflict on Maine.
The simple reality is that moving political debate and disagreement into the realm of economic warfare is something Americans should rise above. We don’t want to see employees fired from private jobs because of their political beliefs; in the same vein, we shouldn’t want to see businesses harmed because their owners dare to hold political positions.
Meanwhile, a different type of speech — government — raised eyebrows this week in Portland. The superintendent of schools agreed to deputize students and send home literature advocating for political action; in this case, taking on $70 million of new debt for school facilities. Some members of the City Council called this out…and they’re right. It is crossing a line to force students to carry home a message of advocacy on a matter of legitimate public debate.
However, some believe the superintendent expressing his opinion at all is a bridge too far, even if it is limited to op-eds and interviews. Whether it is or not is a question we need to address head-on in Maine.
Supporters of a taxpayer bill of rights believed it was unfair and wrong for municipalities — and their statewide organization — to use tax dollars to fight a citizens’ referendum. Opponents of bear hunting sued to stop the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s advocacy against their ballot initiative. And we just saw sheriffs and police chiefs face off on the recent gun control question, a question we’re likely to see again soon.
There is no simple answer on where the limits should lie when it comes to government speech. Professional public employees — be they biologists or superintendents — can offer relevant information on matters of public importance. That said, there is something that feels wrong about tax dollars being spent to oppose the political movements of taxpayers. But however lawmakers come down on these questions, the solution should be applied clearly and consistently.
A vigorous public debate is healthy for a democracy; a citizen’s right to freedom of speech is in the First Amendment for a reason. We must tread lightly when we use the power of government to challenge that speech, whether prescriptively or adversarially. But our political system is greater than government, which is why we need to guard free speech through our culture.
As I said back in October, we should boycott the boycotts. So stand up for free speech. And do it proudly in your Bean Boots.