Don’t Make Consumer Freedom a Victim of Cancel Culture

It may be a hard pill for some on the right to swallow, but corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individual citizens.

And while Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the All Star Game out of Georgia over opposition to the state’s voting law has been generally derided on the right as an example of “woke” corporations trying to cancel voices they disagree with, the truth is it’s the league’s prerogative. If the MLB wants to risk losing fans over a political statement, we should let it. If history is any indicator, the free market is more than capable of holding corporations accountable, especially sports leagues.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell labelled corporate condemnation of the bill from several major companies an example of  “woke alternative government.” He and other Republicans in the Senate have threatened consequences, introducing a bill that would remove the MLB’s antitrust exemption, encouraging consumer boycotts, and advocating GOP-controlled state legislatures raise taxes on businesses that have supported the law.

Using public power to punish politically-driven decisions made by private companies risks running afoul of the First Amendment and lessening consumers’ power to express their dissatisfaction.

Republicans’ outrage over corporate criticism of Georgia’s law is understandable, as the claim it promotes voter suppression ignores some of the provisions in the bill. Critics as high-placed as President Biden have alleged that measures like the law’s expansion of voter ID are an attack on voting rights, but the law also expands early voting and mandates one absentee ballot drop-box per county, albeit with some access restrictions.

But threatening legal repercussions for this act of protest, as Senator McConnell has done, goes too far and risks running afoul of the First Amendment. Corporations have long enjoyed free speech rights. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC even affirmed the right of corporate America to make statements about candidates and political issues. And while there is an anti-corporate favoritism argument to be made against government granting tax breaks to specific companies, revoking those protections over issues of free speech, as Republicans have recently expressed interest in doing, seems retaliatory and coercive.

Punitive measures taken by the government also risk taking away power from the same group Republicans want to empower: consumers. Data shows that consumer spending is increasingly driven by considerations beyond the quality of goods and the price at which they’re offered. Especially for younger generations, consumers care about a company’s social identity: whether they take care of their employees, give back to the community and share similar values.

And consumers who find their view isn’t reflected in a corporation’s behavior aren’t afraid to take their dollars elsewhere. Case in point: When the National Football League allowed players angry over racial injustice to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, it wasn’t just the league that saw ratings dive and attendance drop at some stadiums. NFL sponsors also noted a decline in their businesses. The next season, the NFL changed its policy and mandated on-field personnel stand during the national anthem.

When consumers vote with their dollars, businesses take notice. That’s the power of the free market.

But when government steps in pre-emptively to police corporate speech and force companies to behave in ways they find more palatable, they risk slapping away the invisible hand of the market. The voices of dissatisfied consumers can’t be heard if government makes punitive decisions that affect a company’s bottom line.

Besides, politically-motivated decisions made by businesses ultimately don’t have the potential to do as much harm as the same decisions made by government. When legislators punish corporations whose speech they don’t like, they’re not just forcing ideological conformity on business. They’re taking choices away from consumers and robbing those who disagree with the political majority of the chance to support companies that share their values.

Unlike government mandates, market powers are compatible with pluralism — an integral component of free speech and free markets. In the case of the MLB’s decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Georgia, those who disagree with the decision can make their dissent known by ceasing to watch the MLB and patronize its franchises. And those who agree with the decision are free to support the MLB.

Ultimately, wokeness can’t override the mathematical realities of running a business. If it affects their bottom line, the MLB and other corporations tempted to let politics drive their decision-making will listen to the largest portion of their customer base. The NFL’s decision to change its stance on kneeling during the national anthem shows this. The majority rules in markets. And politicians angry about corporate activism shouldn’t take any steps that erode the democratic power of socially-conscious consumers.

Katherine Revello is a freelance writer and editor. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her work has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner and Human Progress.