Our Opinion: Sponsor boycotts just another form of free expression

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There are valid criticisms of the public pressure campaign to take conservative commentator Laura Ingraham off the air. The free-speech dodge isn’t one of them.

The host of “Ingraham Angle” on Fox News is under fire after mocking Parkland school shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg in a March 28 tweet that linked to a news story reporting that four colleges had rejected his admission applications.

Hogg didn’t bother to respond with a snappy comeback. He went straight to the nuclear option, listing Ingraham’s 12 top advertisers in a tweet and calling on them to cancel their “Ingraham Angle” commercials. With help from his formidable following on social media, Hogg launched a boycott blitzkrieg. As of Monday, 15 companies had pulled their ads from Ingraham’s show.

The pundit’s fans fretted Ingraham would lose her primetime platform if advertisers continue to flee. On cue, conservative commentators began harrumphing and wringing their hands.

“Instead of boycotts and threats, how about celebrating the First Amendment by encouraging people to say what they think?” syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote in a piece headlined “Free speech takes another hit from thin-skinned liberals.”

Free speech, however, is alive and well in the “Ingraham Angle” boycotts. Companies are voting with their wallets and publicly taking sides in the spat between Ingraham and Hogg. Nothing in the First Amendment compels sponsors to subsidize speech with which they disagree.

Laura Ingraham hasn’t been arrested or sued for her tweet. She isn’t under federal investigation. Her expression hasn’t been stifled. Whoever said freedom of speech meant freedom from consequences?

Courts have interpreted “speech” to encompass a wide range of expressive conduct, from speaking, writing, drawing and painting to donating money to candidates, campaigns and think tanks. Whether to advertise on a conservative talk show or a liberal talk show — or to withhold ad dollars — is both an economic and political consideration.

Fear not, conservatives: The door swings both ways.

If a carmaker, retailer or restaurant chain sponsors your favorite show, then abruptly pulls its ads in an orchestrated boycott, you can then choose to take your business elsewhere — and let the brands know why. You can boycott the boycotters. Alternatively, you can launch a “buycott” and go out of your way to support the companies that support your favorite programs.

When folks on both sides of a political debate choose to vote with their wallets and do so with the same sustained vigor, they’ll either cancel each other out or the free market will produce a winner and a loser.

Call it an exercise in economic democracy — every transaction is a referendum and every consumer is an eligible voter. Ballots are thin and green and crisp, and they aren’t distributed equally. Cash registers are the voting machines and every day the stock market’s open for trading is Election Day.

Boycotts are an exercise of free speech, not a threat to its existence. That being said, this Twitter tempest in a teapot doesn’t deserve to be the flashpoint for a political firestorm.

Ingraham’s tweet chiding Hogg for his grade-point average and college rejections was poor form — she even acknowledged that much, penning an apology the next day. But it wasn’t, or shouldn’t be, beyond the pale of allowable discourse.

As The Washington Post’s Callum Borchers explains in an analysis piece trying to tease out the “rules of engagement,” David Hogg and his Parkland peers are now public figures. They’re activists in the fierce debate over gun control, and they’ve used their celebrity to hector the National Rifle Association and tweak Second Amendment supporters.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative pundit and gun rights advocate, gives Hogg no quarter. Shapiro was the same age, 17, when he began writing a syndicated column.

“I was smacked about routinely,” he wrote. “But I was speaking publicly, and that’s the way things go.”

If Hogg can dish out frank criticism, he ought to be able to take it. He is no longer just a witness or a victim of violence; he is a full-fledged political pugilist. You can’t rain heavyweight blows upon your opponents and expect to be treated with kid gloves.

Perhaps Ingraham’s sponsors were overly skittish and should have let the thoughtless tweet blow over. Now they’ve entered the fray — and consumers might choose to punish them for it.