When a private business selling a product has its product removed from the shelves of a given store over something printed on that product, is that censorship? And does that violate the 1st Amendment? A Tennessee-based newspaper apparently thinks so:
The Rutherford Reader, a family owned and operated business, runs feature columns of local interest, many of which lately have related to controversy surrounding a mosque being built in Rutherford County.
The columns didn’t sit well with at least one patron who complained to several companies that they amounted to hate speech after a guest columnist in April referred to Islam as “evil.” One month later, the Reader was dropped from Kroger grocery stores, and soon after from a local KFC.
Now the paper is threatening to sue, saying this is a blatant breach of its First Amendment rights.
Opinion columns are just that: opinions. Everyone’s got ’em and, when it’s a newspaper I’m free to either read or pass by, I have the choice of whether or not to expose myself to those opinions. But if the store I shop in decides they don’t even want to carry the newspaper in question – effectively removing my choice of whether or not to read it – is that a 1st Amendment violation?
The answer to that is a big, black-letter-law no. Like all of the Constitution, the 1st Amendment is specifically a protection of a citizen’s right to free speech (freedom of religion, the press, and peaceable assembly, also, but let’s concentrate on the first) from government interference, and that’s all. It prohibits Congress and state legislatures from passing laws restricting my free speech and law enforcement agencies at all levels from interfering in my exercise of that right. It does not even address actions by other private entities and it hold no power whatsoever against them. I am under no obligation at all to bring any publication into my home or allow them to broadcast from my property.
This approach to handling their dispute with the local grocery stores and KFC is just wrong and I doubt strongly any judge will say otherwise. Those stores are completely within their rights to refuse to carry that newspaper and make it available to their customers. Please note that their customers are equally within their rights to decide that this decision by the stores is wrong and to refuse to spend money at those stores. That’s how free speech works. It’s now up to the stores to determine whether the customers staying with them for taking this action provide sufficient payoff to account for those who will leave on the basis of this incident.
However, the newspaper needs to find a different approach if they intend to pursue this. Their 1st Amendment rights have not be violated.