What Conservatives Don’t Understand About The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the Constitution is often quoted, and far less often understood, particularly by right-wing politicians. In relation to the incident involving fast food chain Chick-Fil-A COO Dan Cathy, it has been coming up quite a bit. If you didn’t follow the story, Cathy created a media frenzy by making a number of public statements about his opposition to same-sex marriage and gay rights. In response, some liberals began to boycott the restaurants, while some conservatives, possibly catalyzed by former Republican Governor Mike Huckabee’s idea of creating a “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” went out of their way to eat at the restaurant’s nationwide locations.

Sarah Palin decided to weigh in on the matter on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News program, where she said that the proposed Chick-Fil-A boycott “has a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights.” While initially it appeared she was referring to individuals boycotting Chick-Fil-A, her comments were defended by arguing that she referred only to opposition to new Chick-Fil-A franchises by some city mayors and other politicians. Even if that’s the case, unless mayors or others actually act to stop Chick-Fil-A from moving into specific locations in their respective jurisdictions, they are free to express their views, as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. Moving past the minutia of Sarah Palin’s specific comments in this particular instance, I’ve found myself thinking of the incredible misunderstanding and double standard with which conservatives have sought to hide under the umbrella of the 1st Amendment during recent years. Particularly distressing is the idea that many of them know little to nothing about the Constitution.

Remember, Sarah Palin couldn’t name a single Supreme Court case, nor a single newspaper that she read during the leadup to the 2008 election. Why is she considered a spokesperson for the law, Constitution, or any Amendments – much less the 1st – by a major media outlet (notice I don’t use the word “news”) like Fox News? Working backwards chronologically, I’m reminded of Michele Bachmann’s many bizarre and misguided comments about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – before and after the Supreme Court’s upholding of the law just months ago. While Bachmann clearly had no idea what the reality of the Supreme Court’s decision was, nor the legal basis for that decision, she considers herself a constitutional scholar and didn’t hesitate to make any number of absurd claims about the decision on national television.


One of my favorite 1st Amendment fiascos involves conservative talk radio host “Doctor Laura” Schlessinger. In August of 2010, she told Larry King that she was ending her radio program in order to “regain [her] 1st Amendment rights.” She thought she had lost those rights because people were offended by an n-word laced rant which took place on her radio program, and were indicating they would no longer listen to her program.

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The message to conservatives who misuse and misquote the 1st Amendment for political gain, to encourage pity to be taken on them, or for any other reason, is this:

Freedom of speech is NOT freedom from the consequences of incredibly offensive speech.

This includes everything from viewers no longer listening to “Doctor Laura” because she said something offensive, to boycotting Chick-Fil-A because their COO said something offensive.

Let’s return to the specifics of the Chick-Fil-A situation. As I mentioned, some conservatives, many who consider themselves Christians and who base their opposition to gay rights on that Christianity have been going out of their way to frequent Chick-Fil-A locations. This is happening to such an extent that some locations have long lines wrapping around their buildings, and some of those interviewed have indicated that while they don’t regularly or ever eat at Chick-Fil-A, their religious beliefs have made them feel the need to support Chick-Fil-A based on COO Dan Cathy’s anti-gay views.

Rather than supporting an anti-gay fast food company, wouldn’t it be more praiseworthy to send some food to the children who have none of it? To the countless children and adults alike who don’t have a next meal, nor the luxury to stand around waiting for anti-gay chicken, the idea of supporting discrimination by buying food you don’t need (and realistically don’t even like) to prove a political point might be difficult to understand. To those who say they are standing in line for hours waiting to order chicken because their religion compels them to oppose homosexuality, I would ask when the last time was that they lined up to help at a food bank or homeless shelter – something Jesus actually said to do.

David Pakman, host of the internationally syndicated political talk radio and television program, “The David Pakman Show,” writes a monthly column. He can be reached at www.davidpakman.com.