On April 18, co-founders of the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand were arrested at the nation’s capitol. The two joined “Democracy Awakening” to help protest the influence of “big money” in politics. Usually that means undoing Citizens United, or making sure that corporations are not allowed to speak about political issues and candidates.
Amusingly, Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B Corporation. That means Ben & Jerry’s is engaged in the very sort of First Amendment protected speech that they’d like to ban. Let’s go from amusing to absurd. Ben & Jerry’s proudly explains all the good social causes the corporation supports. They launched “Save our Swirl” to promote an understanding of climate change. To signal support for same-sex marriage, they changed “Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough” to “I dough, I dough.” Naturally, Ben & Jerry’s would like to ban similar speech—corporate speech promoting political issues or candidates.
Yes, these social justice capers expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of the speech police in the first place. Ben & Jerry’s would like to stop the “unregulated cash flowing into campaigns and elections.” Seems simple enough, but it takes cold, hard cash to buy pamphlets, Facebook ads, and even to arrange the coolest social justice protest of 2016. Add all the complexities of campaign finance law, and you’re left with bureaucrats deciding whether, perhaps, the Democracy Awakening protest is really “too close” to an election, constitutes a secret message to elect candidates, or is otherwise illegal.
The thing about corporations is that they’re very different. John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, has devoted an entire philosophy of “Conscious Capitalism.” Costco promotes higher wages for workers and more equitable employment arrangements. Others seek to deliver lower cost goods to consumers with great quality and stay out of the political fray. Corporations are simply gatherings of people for a common purpose. Some are zany social justice types. Others sell oil and help us get from point A to point B. Some have opinions and some are silent, since they want to sell products and not upset the public.
Sadly, Ben & Jerry’s appears to believe if you’re on the “right” side of an issue, corporate speech is welcome, but opposing voices are not. I happen to believe that more corporate discussion from Ben & Jerry’s or Wal-Mart is a welcome addition in a free society. I’m happy to dismiss the considerably frivolous ideas of Ben and Jerry while ardently protecting their right to babble—as two guys, or as a Certified B Corporation.
The real awakening in Democracy Awakening is that speech bans are universally wrong and unjust. Prior to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United, corporate political speech too close to an election mentioning the wrong topics could be banned under federal law. Opening up speech and encouraging individual and corporate communication are welcome results.
Perhaps at the end of the day maybe Baskin Robbins got it right with “31 Flavors.” Imagine a world where Ben & Jerry’s only served chocolate or vanilla ice cream. With diversity, choice, and competition come more representative and better options. The same is true about speech, politics, and the electoral process.