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Perhaps I take my law degree for granted sometimes, but it still floors me when I hear somebody say something about the U.S. Constitution that sounds as ridiculous as what Sarah Palin recently said in response to the call to boycott Chick-fil-A:

Well, that calling for the boycott is a real—has a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights. And the owner of the Chick-fil-A business had merely voiced his personal opinion about supporting traditional definition of marriage, one boy, one girl, falling in love, getting married. And having voiced support for kind of that cornerstone of all civilization and all religions since the beginning of time, he [is] basically getting crucified.

After seeing/hearing Palin’s remarks, I tweeted about it, because I thought other people would get a chuckle out of it as well. Much to my surprise, some folks responded to my tweet—challenging my interpretation of the First Amendment. That made me question whether the average person understands how the First Amendment works. (NB: I do realize that the average person—probably even the average fifth-grader—understands a lot more than does Sarah Palin.)

For what it’s worth, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

For the purposes of this discussion, the key provision is Congress shall make no law…which essentially means that no government can tell you what you can or can’t say. Even so, the prohibition has limitations. For example, you can’t say “‘bomb’ on an airplane,” yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, or (in open court) tell a judge that he’s full of shit. 

For all intents and purposes, the First Amendment doesn’t have anything to do with private individuals, groups of individuals, or even corporate entities. Case in point, if you badmouth your boss, it’s fair to say that you aren’t likely to remain in his employ. Compare that to, say, telling Dubya that his WMD story was a sham. See the difference? Your boss can fire you if he doesn’t like what you say, but Dubya can’t [lawfully] lock you up for disagreeing with his policy.

That’s why it was so funny when Sarah Palin said that people boycotting Chick-fil-A “has a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights.” Unless the government organized said boycott, there can be no First Amendment implications. For the sake of argument, however, let’s turn that around: If the government said that people couldn’t boycott an establishment because of political views, etc., that government action would be barred by the First Amendment.

UPDATE: Chicago politician vows to keep Chick-fil-A out of his neighborhood. “There are consequences for one’s actions, statements and beliefs. Because of [Dan Cathy]’s ignorance, I will deny Chick-fil-A a permit to open a restaurant in my ward.” Dare I say, obviously, this raises First Amendment concerns.

Photo credit: Bruce Tuten