“As for him who lacks the courage to defend even his own soul: Let him not brag of his progressive view … Let him say to himself plainly: I am cattle, I am a coward, I seek only warmth and to eat my fill.” So wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his essay Live not by Lies, urging resistance to all forms of ideological coercion. Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president, stated that authoritarian regimes are propped up by small instances of ideological submission, like the greengrocer who puts up a party slogan in his shop out of fear of nonconformity.
The topic of compelled speech recently made headlines as Jack Phillips, the Colorado cakeshop owner who refused to make a same-sex wedding cake, went before the Supreme Court. Amidst comparisons to racism and Jim Crow, serious mischaracterizations of Phillips’ position have spread.
The baker does not discriminate against gay people categorically. His lawyer admitted that it would be wrong and illegal for him to deny an off-the-shelf product to a customer simply because of the person’s sexual orientation. Rather, he does not accept commissions to custom-decorate cakes that have messages contrary to his beliefs. His stance is not at all unique to same-sex weddings, as he also refuses to decorate cakes for Halloween and divorce parties. While some argue that baking a rainbow cake does not fall under the category of First Amendment “speech,” legal precedent and intuition acknowledge that protected speech takes many forms: from burning a flag to kneeling during the national anthem, from the right to express an idea to the right not to.
In Obergefell v. Hodges, the majority opinion, even while striking down bans on same-sex marriage, emphasized in its conclusion that those who oppose same-sex marriage “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that … same-sex marriage should not be condoned.” Obergefell, even while updating the government’s definition of marriage, explicitly disavowed coercion to enforce this new definition.
The couple who brought the suit have every right to create social pressure by condemning Phillips on Yelp, Google Reviews, and the sidewalk outside Masterpiece Cakeshop. Phillips can then decide whether to prioritize his convictions or his brand reputation. But it’s a different story when the Colorado Civil Rights Commission provides Phillips the choice of either shutting down part of his business or compromising his integrity of belief. If he were to acquiesce, he would be subordinating his conscience to the coercive power of the state. That the government should have the power to do this should trouble even the harshest critics of Phillips. It would be so simple for Phillips to give in, just as it was for the greengrocer in Havel’s anecdote. Yet the obstinacy of his stance points to his sincerity and depth of conviction.
Some might bristle at a comparison between dissidents under authoritarian regimes and a modern-day baker with traditional marriage views. But the First Amendment was not made to be selectively applied to ideas we like. It is meaningless unless it provides protections for beliefs that are unpopular or even offensive. Furthermore, a victory for Phillips would set a precedent that would also protect objecting T-shirt makers from having to print anti-gay shirts or poster companies from producing white supremacist promotional materials.
I would rather live in a world where people who disagreed with me stated their views openly, rather than one in which they succumbed to social, economic, or legal pressure to state a certain belief. Coercion by any powerful institution, be it the state or the University, tries to gloss over real disagreements between people rather than encourage meaningful debate. In my personal experience, knowing that neither the government nor the University will compel me towards or prevent me from expressing a viewpoint has allowed me to speak with candor to those from very different walks of life. As vehemently as I may disagree with someone’s reasons for bucking social convention to live out their beliefs, anyone who does so wins my respect for their commitment to principle. Even if we disagree about what the truth is, we should recognize the good and true desire to achieve harmony between one’s beliefs and actions.
Thomas Clark is a senior in computer science from Herndon, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.