Boycotts, Free Speech, and the Unprincipled Left

Netflix has said it will consider boycotting Georgia for its productions if that state goes through with its antiabortion law. And this is not the first time in recent memory that corporations have boycotted or threatened boycott because of state laws. Some companies did the same when Indiana passed a law protecting religious freedom, one modelled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But no one to my knowledge on the left has raised any objection to this flexing of corporate muscle and many in fact applauded the corporate actions, as the popular hashtag #Boycottindiana showed.

As a matter of principle, I do not oppose boycotts for ideological reasons, although I do not support the substance of these particular boycotts. Boycotts represent the exercise of the liberty to buy from whom one chooses. But it seems to me the height of hypocrisy for the left to approve of these boycotts while opposing the right of corporations to speak out at election time. The left worries that corporations will use their power to distort democratic choice through their speech. Boycotts are also an exercise of corporate power to influence democracy.

Indeed, boycotts are more problematic both as a matter of political theory and the Constitution. Corporate speech, like all speech, tries to persuade citizens to exercise their franchise according to the views of the persuader.  Corporate influence is thus mediated by the reasoned deliberations of the voter. Boycotts on the other hand attempt put the livelihood of some voters and companies at risk. It is a use of economic power that the left calls coercive in other contexts.

As a constitutional matter, corporate speech also stands on much stronger ground. It is political speech—speech that gets most protection under the First Amendment. (It is well settled that government restrictions targeted at money to exercise  speech rights or for that matter other rights  are treated as a potential violation of the right). Boycotts are conduct. Boycotts enjoy much less protection under the First Amendment, as the left itself argues when it comes to bakers who would like to boycott same-sex weddings.

The best explanation of the difference of the left stance’s on corporate boycotts and corporate speech is not principle, but simply the political incidence of the kind of action at issue. Corporate speech on balance is likely to help the right, because the dominant voices in our society—the media and academia—already lean sharply to the left. And this imbalance can have an effect. For instance, it is well-known that New York Times editorial endorsements help the endorsed candidates win local elections. A recent study has shown that even its news pages are now dominated by current left concerns, as measured by the sharply increasing appearance of words like social justice.

Restrictions on corporate speech will not affect the influence of the media, so long as laws exempt media corporations as they inevitably do. Speech by non-media corporations does not even need to lean right to break up this hegemony. Even if such corporate speech is relatively ideologically balanced, its addition to the media and academic conversation will make for a more equal field of political battle overall—one beneficial on balance to the right.

The incidence of corporate boycotts, unlike corporate speech, advances the left. The companies likely to engage in this behavior will boycott on issues of concern to the left. Entertainment companies of the kind that threaten to boycott Georgia are a case in point. The talent on which their enterprises depend tend to be the wokest of woke and, like children, need constant attention. And even if it did not make some business sense for the companies to consider boycotts in favor of the latest left-liberal cause, their company executives inhabit the same Hollywood bubble and will receive personal accolades for their stance even if it comes at the expense of corporate profits.

Sadly, the left position on speech, which appeared principled in decades past, is now revealed to shift based on the interests of the day. Consider also the case of anonymous speech and the anonymous donations to support speech, without which speech cannot be effective. Many of the movements most celebrated by progressives depended on such anonymous support. The abolitionist and civil rights movement are but two examples.

For the moment, however, the left now styles at least some kinds of anonymity as “dark money.” Complaints about dark money have become the staple of Democratic objections at judicial confirmation hearings, particularly from Senator Whitehouse, who seems to think that dark money is the root of all political evil.

The position on dark money also makes sense as a matter of interest because of the left’s domination of the media and the tech and entertainment companies that are likely to fire those whose donations are revealed. The media can mount publicity campaigns against some of those who donate and then the companies can serve as the executioners of those who have made politically incorrect donations. Recall that the CEO of Mozilla, the nonprofit browser company, resigned under pressure because it was found that he had donated to a referendum in support of keeping marriage within traditional bounds. In contrast, if an officer at GE contributed to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, nothing would happen to him, although Sanders’ program would harm the company’s bottom line.

The reaction of friends of liberty should be to double down on principle and political activism simultaneously. Thus, what they should emphatically not do is use state power to coerce the boycotters through banning business in the state. That will only give cover to those municipalities who want to ban conservative businesses, as San Antonio has done with Chick-fil-A. The left’s contrasting lack of principle will be costly at least so long as there are principled liberals who favor free speech. While they are a declining band, they still exist and remain numerous among university professors, albeit not among university administrators.

Moreover, in the long run boycotts by woke entertainment companies may hurt these companies. Most Americans watch movies and television just to be entertained and ignore the left-liberal slant of much of what they see. These boycotts will bring home the reality of bias in the entertainment industry. And just as the increasingly obvious bias in the mainstream media generated alternatives, the transparency of bias here may give rise to conservative or at non-leftist entertainment companies.

If Netflix boycotts Georgia, Georgians should boycott Netflix. Non-profit associations will be needed to coordinate such campaigns. And if necessary Georgia could pass laws to permit anonymity of donors to such organizations. Thus, friends of liberty should both stand publicly on principle but support the anonymity that works on behalf of those principles.