Assuming you have a passing interest in politics and were awake for the past week or so, you've likely already heard all about Indiana's recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Designed similarly to laws in several other states, including my home state of Illinois, the bill was designed to confer religious expression rights (further than the federal protection that already exists for individuals) onto business owners and the companies they operate. Depending on what you read and where you read it, there has been a great deal of confusion over what this law does and where it departs from similar laws in other states. The one distinction that appears to really matter, should you be interested, is that most of these kinds of laws include language that forbid their invocation as a defense
at trial for discrimination in which the government is not a party, whereas Indiana's law didn't make that distinction. Indiana has since amended the law to protect the LGBT community
, which has been particularly vocal in its opposition. Since the right of refusal on religious grounds to serve that community was really the impetus for this law to begin with, that pretty much leaves us where we were before the law was in place at all. Whether you agree with the law or think it legalized bigotry is a discussion for another place. What interests me is whether now, in the age of a democratized message available via the internet, the outcry to change the law was the most efficient course of action at all.
When discussing the benefits of the First Amendment, free speech, and the right to freely express ideas, most often the focus is placed on the value of protecting speech for the sake of the speakers. After all, should we begin to allow censorship of some speech, we might some day find that speech we wish to use has become censored. It's a perfectly valid argument, but an incomplete one, because the other benefit of free speech is that, assuming it's exercised, we don't have to wonder about the stances and positions people take. What Indiana's law did, in its original form, was offer business entities the same right to expose their opinions in the same way. And, in the age of Yelp reviews and online activism, are we really better off taking actions that push free speech, even speech we detest, underground, or are we better off giving companies an avenue for exposure.
Think again about Yelp reviews and recall the general trend for the stories we cover
about them at Techdirt. Those posts tend to be of a couple varieties. Many are the sort that involve business owners suing over negative Yelp reviews. A couple of things to note about this when framed by a discussion on the Indiana law: First, this reaction to Yelp reviews means that online reviews matter to businesses, and with good reason. Customer reviews are often a first-stop on the consumer's road to deciding where to spend their dollar. Online reviews are a powerful thing, in other words. As for suing over negative reviews, I think the case that such actions are valid would be diminished by a law that confers more expression rights to companies than not. After all, either you're for free speech or you aren't, Mr. Indiana Company. The road is traveled in both directions.
The other kind of Techdirt post you see concerning online customer reviews is of the activist sort, where a company has acted positively or poorly in one way or another and the general public took to review sites, such as Yelp, Google Plus, or Facebook pages, to express their support or disgust. You may recall the the whole Amy's Baking Company fiasco that started with some crazy customer stories on Yelp, spun out of control
on the show Kitchen Nightmares
, and then exploded all over social media and review sites shortly thereafter. There, too, the owners of the establishment blamed Yelp reviews and "haters" for their misery, showing the power of the platform. If activism is a valid tool at all, it's perhaps at its most powerful in the online world, where connections exist everywhere and activism can be democratized across city, state, and national lines.
So, in light of all that, the question for both sides of the argument on the Indiana law is whether either side was best served by amending the law and responding to the backlash, or if we would have all been better off trusting that enough information is shared at this point, and our country has made enough progress, generally speaking, to simply trust the combination of market forces and online speech and let the law stand as it was originally written. It feels strange to argue this, I'll admit, but I think the latter might be true. Were I the one making these decisions, I would be tempted to let Indiana's companies have their way and all the speech and rights to refuse service they might choose to take advantage of. Not because I would agree with their theology or their politics, but because I would trust the general public and the internet to work as a market force and solve the problem without further legislation.