Free-speech chicken: Campus leaders react to Chick-fil-A controversy
Few throughout the month of July could order a signature sandwich from Chick-fil-A without thinking of the public relations nightmare the fast food chain faced from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Pro-LGBT activists and organizations drew significant attention to the donations that Chick-fil-A made through its charitable arm the WinShape Foundation, which totaled more than $2 million (2009 onward.) These funds, according to WinShape’s IRS 990 forms, were sent to groups with documented anti-gay agendas such as the Family Research Council and Exodus International.
Chick-fil-A’s partnership with the FRC in particular attracted a media following because of FRC’s support of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality bill, often dubbed “Kill the Gays Bill.” The bill would criminalize same-sex relations, which in certain cases would result in the death penalty.
Local and national media ran with the story, sparking debate and discussion through social media, causing some to renounce the restaurant altogether.
A petition has circulated University of Maryland, College Park asking for administration to reconsider Chick-fil-A’s presence on its campus.
Kyle Milligan, who started the petition, said that he felt Chick-fil-A’s corporate message ran counter to the environment that College Park has attempted to foster.
The petition, which has over 850 signatures as of Tuesday, was also supported by College Park’s Pride Alliance.
“I recognize that there are contracts in place that prevent immediate action on the part of the University, and that they have to respect business agreements,“ Milligan said in an email. “On the other hand, Chick-Fil-A’s contract expires at the end of this year, so I’m hoping and expecting that the University will choose not to renew it, especially if there is vocal student support for that decision.”
Milligan said that he has often encountered individuals who say that his petition does not respect Chick-fil-A’s free speech rights. But college campuses, he said, are excellent venues to vocalize opinions regarding political matters, particularly about hot-button issues such as gay marriage.
“It’s important that people share their opinions, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as the question of what constitutes a marriage,” he said.
Towson Queer Student Union President Adrienne Luciano said that she and her group welcome discussion from all parties regarding Chick-fil-A, but that she has yet to organize a protest or petition, and does not plan to unless the 100 active members of the QSU come to a consensus.
“Right now we’re not boycotting anyone, we’re not harassing anyone, we’re not into that” she said. “Right now in this tough economy we need people to keep their jobs. And that goes for all the Chick-fil-A restaurants. Don’t drive up there and harass them. [The workers] need the money.”
Though community members across the country have demanded the removal of local Chick-fil-A locations, Towson’s campus has yet to experience heavy backlash from the controversy, according to Joe Oster, associate vice president of auxiliary services.
The chain has been present on Towson’s campus since before Oster took office, over 18 years. Chick-fil-A is a nationally branded concept that holds a contract with the Compass Group, the parent organization of Chartwells. Chick-fil-A, through that contract, receives a five percent commission from their food sales at Towson.
Dining services does not contribute any additional fees, meal plan or food sales to Chick-fil-A.
“When people go to Chick-fil-A, they are making the personal choice to go to Chick-fil-A,” Oster said. “They are making the personal choice to understand that a portion of what they’re paying for their sandwich and nuggets, that money is going to Chick-fil-A.”
Oster said that he has conducted his own research, but has not discovered history of the company being discriminatory.
He has also attempted to judge students’ and community members’ reactions to the controversy, but has only received one letter calling for Chick-fil-A’s expulsion from campus.
“It’s too early to gauge student concern,” he said.
He also said that a boycott would likely be the best possible method of ousting Chick-fil-A from campus, if students felt strongly about it.
“We make our decisions based on a business decision,” he said. “If the students decide they don’t want to participate in going to Chick-fil-A, and Chick-fil-A becomes a bad business decision for us, we get rid of it. It just doesn’t work out.”
Towson Student Government Association President Brandy Hall released a statement regarding the controversy.
“SGA is here to reassure students that we are here to talk to if they feel offended and/or concerned about the topic, as we are a voice for the students,” the statement reads. “Although we are an unbiased party, we are fully prepared to take the students’ concerns and make actions if necessary.”
She also said she would personally support the senate passing a resolution for the removal of Chick-fil-A on campus, but that the executive board does not get a vote.
“I would encourage the senate to take a stand on what they think is right,“ she said. “If a lot of students [express concerns], we’re not going to let them be upset in their own environment.”
Chick-fil-A also made a statement against the accusations on July 31.
“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender,” the statement reads.
Chick-fil-A also has campus locations at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Frostburg and Stevenson.