This story concerns a controversy that arose at a meatpacking company — hence its relevance here — but it could just as well apply to any business.
According to reporting by the Daily Signal, an online news service run by the conservative Heritage Foundation, the trouble started back in 2015 at a family-owned meat processing company called the West Michigan Beef Company in Hudsonville, Mich. This is a town of about 7,200 on the east side of Lake Michigan, halfway between Chicago and Detroit.
The firm is owned by Donald and Ellen Vander Boon and has been incorporated since 2002. According to business records, West Michigan Beef has annual revenues of more than $2.2 million a year and employs about 15 people. The company markets locally raised beef and likely does a fine job of it, if they’ve managed to stay solvent as a small-scale packer for the last 15 years.
But everything’s not fine at the company, because two years ago, Mr. Vander Boon apparently left a pamphlet on the table in the company break room defending traditional marriage, or condemning marriage equality, depending on how you view it.
As the Daily Signal story explained, “Dr. Ryan Lundquist, the USDA inspector, found a religious tract about marriage … on the break room table. Lundquist took the article to Robert Becker, the USDA frontline supervisor, and Lundquist and Becker held a meeting with Vander Boon, at which Becker threatened three times to remove USDA inspectors if Vander Boon didn’t agree to refrain from placing the article in the break room.”
That last allegation was supplied to the Daily Signal by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Karnail S. Mudahar, USDA deputy district manager, allegedly told Mr. Vander Boon that he had violated USDA’s anti-harassment policy that prohibits dissemination of written or spoken communications judged to be “disrespectful” or “insult[ing]” in regard to sexual orientation.
As the Daily Signal noted, USDA’s policy doesn’t apply to plant operations, but it does affect federal employees at the plant.
“If the federal inspectors feel offended, they can walk off the premises and bring your business to a screeching halt,” the article stated. “Arguably, this policy would prevent Vander Boon from displaying literature that advocated for a smaller government as it might entail ‘negative stereotyping’ of federal employees.
Nice try, but that last statement is mere speculation.
Citizens vs. Businesses
Here’s the point: You are — we are — welcome to our own personal beliefs regarding any number of otherwise controversial social topics. We can talk about them in private or in any number of public forums. We can advocate, agitate, express our enthusiasm, or outrage, as the case may be, about any and everything that takes place in society.
We can bore our friends and family to death with our ideas and opinions, and I confess that’s probably happened when I’ve droned on about vegetarianism — its philosophy, not its practitioners, by the way — and its (lack of) historical significance. I’m sure that more than once, people on the receiving end of those diatribes have been tempted to say, “Why don’t you just shut up? Give it a rest, already!”
If we don’t care about maintaining friendships or family relations, we can spout off all we want as private citizens. But what we can’t do is use a publicly chartered business to pursue the same sort of proselytizing.
I know corporations are people, my friend, but a business is subject to different rules. A business is afforded access to services, allowed limitations on financial liability and provided tax breaks and other forms of public subsidies — all with one proviso: Its owners are subject to stricter laws on speech and conduct.
As a businesperson, you’re interacting with the general public, either directly by selling products or services, or indirectly by supplying other companies that do direct marketing. As a result, there are rules regarding business-related communications that don’t necessarily apply to speech by private citizens.
There are also regulations regarding the workplace, in terms of safety and security, that don’t apply to homeowners. And most importantly, there are laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and marital status, among other things, which are enforced on all businesses, because compliance comes with the territory.
You run a business that impacts the public, there’s a whole lot of rules you have to obey.
Don’t like that idea? Then sell out and go become a wage-earner somewhere. You’ll find out just how limited your “rights” really are.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, veteran journalist and commentator.