Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is a way for companies to take a stance on social, environmental and political issues. In this episode, Dr. Gary Deel talks to APU business professor and lawyer Linda Ashar about what drives businesses to engage in corporate citizenship, the benefits, and the risks. Also, learn how businesses have increasingly taken public stances on political issues, including the insurrection and riots at the Capitol Building on January 6, and the effect such action can have on a company’s reputation and bottom line.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about corporate social responsibility in the current American political environment. My guest today is Dr. Linda Ashar. Linda is a full-time Associate Professor with APU in the Wallace E. Boston School of Business where she teaches courses in business, law, ethics, and management. She earned her juris doctorate from the University of Akron School of Law and a Master of Arts in Special Education from Kent State University.
Linda is a practicing attorney of over 30 years in corporate employment and public law and litigation with a special interest in constitutional and civil rights law. She’s published many articles and also hosts a podcast channel here at APUS called Politics in the Workplace. Linda, welcome to Intellectible, and thank you for being our guest today.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Thanks, Gary. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Dr. Gary Deel: Likewise, and we’ve spoken before over on your podcast channel, so I’m happy to reciprocate and have you here on Intellectible. So today’s topic is corporate social responsibility. And there’s a lot to talk about, and in an hour I’m sure we won’t get to most of it. But I certainly want to cover as much as we can. In the interest of giving our listeners the proper pretext, could you talk a little bit about what corporate social responsibility is in the 21st century and what it entails in today’s vernacular?
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Corporate social responsibility has been a trend increasingly in business practice, commonly called CSR. It’s a self-regulatory business model. And the point of it is, it helps a company be socially accountable. It’s also called “corporate citizenship.” In the old days of corporate business models, it was all about making a profit, free market ethics, do your business, get your money in, pay shareholders dividends, and move on.
But corporate citizenship or CSR, encompasses a much broader business involvement in society. Companies have become increasingly conscious of their impact on society, including a broad range of activities. It could be economic, but social, environmental, and as we’re increasingly seeing lately, political. So to engage in CSR means that in the course of ordinary business operations, a company’s actions can enhance society in positive ways.
So what do companies do with such a broad philosophical concept? It results in actions in many forms. We see it in philanthropies and in volunteerism. And we’re kind of used to seeing companies doing that in various ways. But what we’re seeing is a greater increase of a deeper involvement in social activism. And in the form of publications, CEOs speaking out on issues, employee groups becoming more involved. And I’m not speaking so much, Gary, of labor union involvement because that’s not business involvement. That’s a whole separate organizational involvement in social activities.
It can be diversity programs. We see it in codes of ethics that businesses put into place. There is really a broad range of things businesses can be doing, and in multiple ways, as part of strategic planning, as part of how they interact with customers in all sorts of ways, in other words.
And if you read many, especially the bigger corporations’, websites, you’ll see references to corporate social responsibility activities. And really, it’s not a departure from this economic interest that companies have because in concert with all of this social interest, it’s all about boosting the company’s brand at the same time, which is business.
The key point is to pursue pro-social objectives as well as make money. And an integral part of developing and preserving their brand image because they believe customers will be more likely to do business with brands that are perceived to be more ethical. It’s a long-term view to sustainability of business with a symbiotic relationship with social mores.
That’s CSR in a nutshell.
Dr. Gary Deel: Perfect. And I think that’s a good encapsulation. I mean, we talk about CSR in the sense that times have changed and the profit maximization rule of yesteryear was the idea that businesses, their sole purpose was really to make money for the owners and the shareholders and that they weren’t well positioned. The idea at the time was that they weren’t well positioned to care about social issues or to address social issues or environmental issues.
But obviously today, that’s changed and consumer opinion has changed, as you mentioned, that people are not as concerned or were not as concerned at the time with the positions, ethically, that businesses had as long as they liked the products or services. They weren’t paying close attention to what businesses were doing in the back of house, so to speak.
But today, there’s sort of a public eye on every business, especially the large ones in terms of how they’re using and leveraging their strength, their capital, their effort and their power that they wield in the community.
Before we get to sort of the elephant in the room, which is what has transpired in 2021 since January, and the events of early January. Can you think of some examples in corporate America today, environmentally, socially, just to cue our readers into, hey, when we say corporate social responsibility, this is what we’re talking about. Here’s an example.
One I can think of, for example, and this is not an American company, but it’s a company with huge American operations is Royal Caribbean, the cruise line. Most cruise lines share a similar philosophy around this, but they have a very strong what they call Save the Waves at Royal Caribbean. And it’s an environmental sustainability initiative that involves reducing the carbon footprint of their ship operations by recycling more and reusing sheets and linens as opposed to washing them after every single use each night.
So, kind of a general conservation approach to protect the environment that immediately comes to mind for me from my background in hospitality. And that’s true with land-based hotels, as well as cruise lines and other aspects of hospitality. But in your world, can you think of other examples that would cue our readers into what we’re talking about here?
Dr. Linda Ashar: Without naming specific companies because they are more than one. One way that companies are engaging in this kind of CSR practice is looking at their supply chains. Where they get their products, from whom they get them, who’s supplying everything from raw materials to products down the line that they use in either their manufacturing, or in the terms of retail that they sell on the floor.
They are eliminating reliance on purveyors that get their materials and products from unethical labor practice sources such as slavery, and child labor. Occasionally, this will pop up in the news, and consumers get involved in not buying those types of products.
One example that comes to mind that is an ongoing issue that is by no means resolved, but has had some inroads on it, is the child and slave practices in Africa and to some extent in South America in the chocolate world.
One company that has a black spot on it for this is Nestle. That’s not an American company, but it’s a worldwide purveyor of chocolate. Everybody loves chocolate. And a lot of us that go out and buy chocolate really don’t know where the raw product of cocoa that makes chocolate comes from on the ground. But it’s becoming more and more of an issue that is hitting people’s knowledge, but it’s been going on a long time. And it’s been going on a long time because business was not involved in CSR practice. It was about making money, selling products of a hugely lucrative product for centuries. We didn’t just recently started eating chocolate. It’s always been a luxury item.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think about similar examples with food like quinoa, which is almost exclusively cultivated in South American countries like Peru due to really particular and picky growing conditions under which this plant can grow optimally. But the demand for that in the US has made it such that it is pretty much unobtainable by the locals who would normally feed their families on it. They can’t afford to eat it because it’s so valuable in America and elsewhere as a health food or as a keto food or folks that are on particular diets enjoy it, and it goes at quite a premium.
So it’s that sort of economic dynamic that has priced it out of the market for people who otherwise would depend on it for their livelihoods. And so, the purveyors of those products who ship them to the US and other major countries around the world have to think about the implications of the decisions that they make on what does this mean for the people who are responsible for growing these crops?
Dr. Linda Ashar: And another very good example along that line is companies that stopped using ivory products because it came from elephants. And it took time for that to happen because a manufacturer using ivory in things like piano keys had to stop. And finally, of course, laws were put in place to help stop that. So, there is a push pull between law, ethics, and companies being willing to stop lobbying for their benefit to use these things, and take up corporate responsibility to use alternatives.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s an important dynamic, I think that’s worth addressing is the fact that there’s a certain amount of regulation and governance that takes place around business operations to make sure that businesses don’t abuse their operations in such a way that they do harm to others. So there are mandatory minimum compliance standards around things like the EPA, for example, that govern environmental operations and the impact that our businesses have on the environment.
But largely, when we’re talking about CSR, at least for the sake of this conversation as you mentioned at the onset, we’re really talking about self-governed, voluntary, optional initiatives that businesses choose to take on based on market pressures or their own sense of an ethical moral compass. But they aren’t things that are mandated by any kind of government or regulatory agency.
Dr. Linda Ashar: No, that’s right. CSR is self-regulation. But there’s a philosophical spin on that, that one might argue that it’s been socially motivated to businesses to start thinking about it in the first place. It’s a social environmentally produced dynamic where businesses have come to realize in their evolution that social pressures have meaning to economics.
We have a concept we call the triple bottom line theory, which is your ultimate business success and economic success in a larger concept is going to be the planet has to survive, people have to survive to be able to buy your product, and you have to be able to make your product, whatever that is, or provide your service, whatever that is, in the larger scope of the society that sustains the business.
So what is sustainability? Well, your business doesn’t operate in a vacuum. And I think CSR as a concept began to develop out of a realization that you can’t just sell, sell, sell and make money without these other principles happening at the same time. It seems like I’m stating the obvious, but that really wasn’t so obvious 100 years ago.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to observe how little has changed. I mean, we think about how drastically CSR has changed the business operating world. But really, business motivations for the most part, it’s not to say that you can’t point to individual entities or firms that are doing things independent of market pressures. But a lot of the corporate social responsibilities today that are self-governed, self-elected initiatives are driven by market pressure. And it’s simply because consumer opinion has changed about what matters when we’re buying and consuming products and services.
So there was a time when again, people just didn’t know or didn’t have reason to care what was happening behind the scenes of companies as long as they were getting the product or service that they liked at a price that they thought was fair. And that was about all the thought that went into it.
But today, a lot of purchase decisions. I mean, from like we mentioned food to jewelry with the Blood Diamond controversy, to automobiles, to everything we consume has an ethical tangent to it that involves, well, what is the company that I’m buying this product from involved in? And is it something that I can stand behind?
I know an example for me that I think about is the difference between Walgreens and CVS. Back in I want to say 2014, 2015, CVS made the decision that they would no longer sell tobacco products of any kind, and in the interest of health and consumer wellbeing. And I think that that’s a good thing. I think it’s pretty clear the evidence at this point that tobacco use is harmful.
And so, that seems to be a platform that was in some ways self-sacrificial because CVS reports as a public company that I think they were making something like two to three billion dollars a year on selling cigarettes and chewing tobacco and the like before they decided to make this move, which seems to me pretty clearly to be a public community interest thing, and not a how can we make more money thing?
But as a result, as a consumer, if I need something from a drugstore, and I’m at an intersection with a Walgreens on one corner and a CVS on the other. I’m going to CVS because I support, again, the initiative that they’ve put forth there to promote community health and societal wellbeing in that respect.
So that kind of thing ends up being a sort of around the back end a good thing. I don’t know how it balanced out on the actual income statement, but it works in terms of market manipulation in the way that it drives consumer behavior one way or another. And I don’t mean manipulation in an unethical way. I just mean it steers forces in terms of where people will put their dollar.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, and there’s another aspect of this, too. We’ve been talking about customer demand, and customers driving an interest in corporate social responsibility. There’s a bigger picture. And I don’t mean to demean. There are many, many, many responsible and goodhearted business owners out there and CEOs who absolutely care about principles and people beyond how much money the company is going to make. They’re not single minded in that respect.
But in addition to that, there is another dynamic coming into the 21st century and growing, and that is the generation of workers who are interested in working for companies that care. And if companies want to recruit and maintain the best workers, the best employees, the most creative and innovative people, they are going to need to be corporate responsible employers because those are the people that look at who they’re working for. And those are the kind of companies they want to work for and stay with.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think you’re right, absolutely. I often think about the way in which publicly held and publicly traded companies, and that sort of that dynamic, affects the ethical compasses of businesses. Because as you and I both know as attorneys, the operators, the managers of publicly held companies, CEO, COO, Board of Directors, have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders to maximize ownership value.
And so, I often use this as an example when I talk in my classes about ethics and corporate social responsibility that it’s difficult for the CEO of a public company to make self-sacrificial decisions under the pressure of shareholder motivation to maximize value because your job as a CEO of a publicly traded company isn’t really to have an ethical compass, at least by legal definition. It’s again, your fiduciary duty to maximize the value, the financial value of the owners’ capital, their equity.
And so, I often think about the ways in which what we know is the business judgment rule, the idea that generally courts don’t try to interfere with when there’s a good faith effort to say, “Okay, well, something didn’t work out that a CEO tried to do, but we’re not going to start splitting hairs over whether it was a breach of fiduciary duty or not, as long as it was originally intended with some reasonable aim in furtherance of that duty.”
But if you’re a big corporation today, and you have the choice between investing in some new technology, for example, that would result in layoffs in droves from your corporation, automation, and that kind of thing. It’s hard to stand on the business judgment rule and say, “Well, I’m not going to do that, because I just care too much about our employees.”
Because again, at the end of the day, your fiduciary duty binds you to make decisions that in the interest of the shareholders are maximizing the value of the company. Employees be damned one way or another. And I’m not necessarily suggesting that’s the way it should be. I’m actually pointing out that this is sort of an interesting bind that we’ve put publicly traded companies and their operators in where their hands are a little bit tied when it comes to their duty to maximize shareholder value over doing the right thing when those two initiatives are sort of off in two different directions.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Let me be devil’s advocate here. Given the negative spin back they could have on such a decision done cold turkey, isn’t part of that fiduciary duty to approach that management decision with a plan that either phases that decision in, or looks for a retraining and other options of employee management that lessens the hit that employees would take otherwise, and just cold turkey, putting in a system like that and laying them off.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think you’re absolutely right. I think there’s a public relations component that an argument can be made from an operator like a CEO to say, “Well, yes, there was a direct financial hit to this, but the back end optics in the public eye of what this would have looked like would have fared worse for the company overall.”
So you can always argue that there’s sort of those ancillary components, and they’re not, I mean, that’s not just conjecture. You’re right. These are real forces that really affect the bottom line for businesses on the back end in the way that the consumer public might react to a big corporation suddenly laying off, say, half of its workforce because it decided to buy a bunch of robots or something. So, yeah, that’s a legitimate factor.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, and then, of course, you get into the community aspects of it. It’s why we have the WARN Act. Assuming it’s a big company and that they’re laying off enough employees that the law comes into effect is you’ve got to go through all of these bells and whistles to be able to lay them off quickly or not. It’s more of a public relations issue than even a legal one assuming you can cross all the legal bridges that are involved in such a decision.
I think that the social and political environment that companies now face that they have now began to see corporate social responsibility model can give them self-help through these decisions. And I would argue, even as a corporate counsel, that that model can get you through avoiding lawsuits, even frivolous ones. Let’s say you can wait on those lawsuits. Think of what the cost of them is to defend, and the negative feedback that goes with that.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. It’s a lot of moving parts in this concept. But I think that was an excellent intro. And obviously, when we come back from our break I want to address that elephant and talk about the political components of this.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Yes, exactly, because it’s very visible right now.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Linda Ashar on the elements of corporate social responsibility and the current American political environment. In the first half of our talk, we spent some time just introducing the concept of corporate social responsibility and what it means in the 21st century. But the real inspiration behind this episode was to talk about the ways in which corporate social responsibility has rapidly evolved and changed in light of the political divisiveness and controversy in America today, and in immediately recent years.
And most specifically just a few months ago when we talk about the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, and the ways in which companies reversed course in light of that around their political funding, their political support and allegiances in the political world, and the ways in which they identified with different political parties.
So Linda, what did you observe that you thought was most pivotal in terms of the corporate social responsibility response to January 6th and everything that has transcended before and after within that theme of radical conservative nationalism, and the fight over left and right politics in America?
Dr. Linda Ashar: The insurrection on the sixth had several surprises attached to it, I think, for everybody and pretty much every sector of thought in this country. But one thing that immediately arose out of it from a, I suppose, in retrospect, it should not have been such a great surprise, but it was a very sudden and broad sweep of many, many companies. I will confess, I never sat down and counted them all up. But if you printed the page, it was over two pages of a list immediately of major players of companies who withdrew their financial support, not just from Trump, but from Republican PACs and supporters across the board.
Because, not just the insurrection, but because of many Republicans who voiced their disavowment of the election of President Biden in support of Trump’s fake election claims. Some of the companies, I’m looking at the Reuter’s list: American Express halts donations to lawmakers who oppose Biden’s certification, for example. Tyson Foods, Bank of America, Johnson & Johnson, Go Fund Me, Dow.
Dr. Gary Deel: I wonder as we’re thinking about these companies and their actions, their reactions in response to this climax of the angst on the extreme right wing side of the political spectrum in America. I think about, and it’s impossible, of course, to get into the heads of the decision makers to see where their heart was really at. But I wonder how much of it was an ethical compass driven around right and wrong versus, again, what we talked to in the first half an hour, which was just market pressures because the simple numbers game would tell you that if you have to choose a side in this, your numbers are stronger.
If you are, for example, I’m just going to throw a company out here without implication to any kind of political policy. And I’m going to use like Walmart, which of course caters to virtually everybody shops at Walmart in one fashion or another for something at some time or another. And so, left, right, center, Black, White, male, female, I mean, we’re all going in there to buy toothpaste or bread or whatever it is.
And so, if you’re Walmart and your target market is everyone, and you have to pick a side on this left, right controversy, it would seem that market pressure would dictate that you’d go with left or at least left of the controversy because, again, you’re talking about the majority of America. You’re talking about all of the Democratic Party. And you’re also talking about a large portion of the conservative right, the Republican Party, who had the courage to stand up and say this is wrong and to object and to voice their concern and their public defiance of the insurrection at the Capitol, what Trump would call RINOs or Republican in Name Only, which by that, of course, he means any Republican who doesn’t directly support him.
Again, if you’re a company like Walmart, I mean, it just makes good sense from a market standpoint, to voice your objections and your outrage at this kind of thing because you’re going to end up on one side of the fence or the other. And that’s the side of the fence where most of your customers happen to be.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, I think it’s bigger than that, Gary. I don’t think it was an alliance with a political party versus another. I think was that alliance for supporting an election, a properly certified election, and stability of the country. I think that’s where these companies are coming from. If there hadn’t been an insurrection, and had just been maybe a relatively small number of individual politicians of a party disavowing their belief in an election, which they certainly have a First Amendment right to do. It might have been different.
This broad sweep of public disavowal by withdrawal of contributions was a statement, in my view, of we do not support as American corporations the attack on the stability of our government, and illegal election. That’s my take on it. And I think some of them actually did say that.
Also, what’s interesting, if you look down the list, it wasn’t all on Republicans. One company withdrew, I think it was Facebook temporarily suspended donations to both parties. Microsoft temporarily suspended donations to both parties. Now, they weren’t the only two that did that. There are some others. I just happened to catch those two names on Reuters list. Some of these companies withdrew, and it says “temporarily.” In other words, “we’re taking a step back from this whole thing because we’re not going to get involved in it. We’re not going to put our name with it,” is what I see.
Dr. Gary Deel: I certainly think you’re right in some cases. And I certainly hope you’re right, in more cases than not. I guess I’m just, perhaps I’m more cynical than most. But I think about if the circumstances were largely different, for example, if let’s suppose 90% of the American population supported the insurrection publicly, would there still be the same outpouring of corporate denouncement in disgust over the act? I would hope so. I would hope that these decisions were driven by moral compass of right and wrong and not the bottom line in the next quarterly report. But it’s hard to say like you said.
Dr. Linda Ashar: I feel that this happened because of the alliance of businesses to this whole notion of corporate social responsibility. There’s two aspects of companies contributing to political causes in the first place. One is the cynical side, and it’s certainly a powerful aspect of it, and that goes to lobbying. And companies can lobby without direct contributions to parties one way or the other. And then there’s the contributions. Because they’re permitted to make contributions as corporate citizens. And there is the aspect of CSR that a company is acting as a corporate citizen. So why should they not, in their corporate citizenship of doing all these other things that they do philosophically, toward social involvement, not also be involved in political activity?
It would be odd, if nothing else, that they wouldn’t be and there are limits. They can’t force employees, but they’re not supposed to. There are lines that are drawn, but at the same time they have the freedom to do it.
Here’s an example. Simon & Schuster cancelled its contract with Missouri senator (R), Josh Hawley, because of his support of Trump’s view of the election. He had a book coming out. I don’t know what the book was about. It was called “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” What that means, I don’t know. I haven’t read any advances on the book. But I think the fact that Simon & Schuster gave him that kind of publicity in withdrawing their support, maybe to his benefit, who knows? They cancelled his contract, and he threatened to sue them. I haven’t followed up to see if he has, possibly he has. I believe he’s got another publisher. Maybe he doesn’t need to. From that came that term “cancel culture” because at the same time or around that same time Twitter canceled Trump’s account permanently.
Dr. Gary Deel: It’s interesting how when we think about these decisions around what the right would term cancel culture, and really anything that is denouncing these extreme right-wing nationalist beliefs and ideologies. It’s interesting how that galvanizes those within that are still on the train who continue to believe, okay, Twitter’s out, now they’re the enemy. Facebook is out, now they’re the enemy. Stephen Colbert is out, now he’s the enemy. And it’s a smaller and smaller fraction, slice of the pie in society that continues to support these belief systems and the tenets that come from that. But nonetheless, with each departure from the train there’s the stronger sense of unity among those who are left.
Dr. Linda Ashar: The fact is, these companies, whether it’s Facebook, or Twitter, or Simon & Schuster, or any of these companies who have a desire to contribute to A, B, or C. It is their business right to do that. They don’t have an obligation to carry a president or a congressman’s account.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. And that’s an interesting sort of segue into what we talked about just a few days ago together, which was, it’s peculiar to me that the galvanizing of opinions on the right side or at this point the controversial side of the issue. Because you would think at a certain point that enough of the mainstream society would jump ship, that it would cause any reasonable person to question their ideology and whether or not they’re going to be on the wrong side of history, so to speak.
On the subject of Twitter and Facebook, choosing to cancel essentially, Donald Trump, which I’m okay with for that term because essentially, if you’re deleting an account, and banning future use, then maybe cancel is not an inappropriate word, or an improper use of the word. But is that still corporate social responsibility or are we treading on grounds of free speech here? And you started to talk about it a moment ago, but driving the point home about private sector businesses and their freedom to choose who they give a platform to I think is important in this discussion.
Dr. Linda Ashar: I believe that it’s an expression of free speech in a sense that as a business I have a right to speak up to a point. There are limits on free speech on anything. I don’t have a right to discriminate on a protected class. But none of the things that we’re discussing in terms of political beliefs encompass a protected class by law. It’s not based on race, ethnicity, gender. The identity of personhood is what is protected by the constitution. If you look at all of the things that are protected by law under the discrimination laws that was recently just re-explained and asserted in the employee gay rights case in a recent Supreme Court decision. It’s an identity of personhood that is protected by the constitution under these discrimination laws.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. And the only protected class that would draw an analogy to that would be religion because religion is the one, protected classes are normally categorically what we would call immutable in the law, and that just means not subject to change. Generally speaking, when we look at the protected classes in the traditional sense, gender is unchangeable, race is unchangeable, age is unchangeable, national origin is certainly unchangeable. Disability is generally unchangeable. Religion is the only thing that technically is changeable, and people change their religion all the time. But there’s a history of religious persecution in the world in general that underscores the reason why religion is part of the protected classes at the federal level. But I agree with you. I mean, political ideologies change all the time. And it really wouldn’t meet most of the consistent definitions of what we think of when we describe protected classes that currently exist.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Even so, there are in terms of the free speech aspect and even religion aspects in terms of exercising it. There are limits in exercising it in terms of harming someone else. That’s why hate speech is not protected. That’s why we have defamation laws. It’s why we have limits on religious practices that are deemed harmful to society such as human sacrifice that some crazy fringe religions might say was part of their religion as a practice.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, there’s a legal construction that’s often different than the practical construction, which is again to say that obviously, we live in a society today where if someone feels like they identify with a gender that’s different than their anatomy, they’re free to change their gender in most contexts. And now, as you mentioned earlier, protected in certain contexts including marriage and employment, etc. and all for the better, obviously. That’s a good thing that we recognize and protect those rights.
But the legal construction is different under that legal sense. But it’s ironic to me that people on the extreme right factions that were implicated, for example, in the January 6th insurrection would look at the decisions made by companies like Twitter and Facebook, and argue that this is a violation of free speech, and that the deep platforming is basically some type of oppressive, as if it’s government action.
And the irony there is that they’re ignoring the freedom, the rights. They’re asserting their rights to some kind of speech, but ignoring the rights that business owners, like, for example, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, or again, of course, the board of directors and the operators who make these decisions to choose who they give a proverbial microphone to.
So yes, you have the right to free speech in the sense that you can go out stand on the sidewalk and shout all you want, and I can’t try to physically obstruct your ability to do that. But if I own a huge super popular platform like Twitter or Facebook, it is still my discretion who I allow to communicate on that platform so long as it is a privately [controlled] company and not subject to some type of special specific government regulation. It’s a company built around communication, but it’s still ultimately my company and my choice.
That’s part of the same freedoms and rights that we cherish in our society to the extent that we value freedom and choice. And so, it’s interesting how that side of the argument wants its cake and wants to eat it too.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, exactly. And people in discussing rights when they are focused on one particular right that’s important to them overlook that the rights are all intended by the constitution to be level on equal ground. The concept of equity and equality are the uppermost point. One right is not supreme, other than perhaps liberty, but in terms of the rights of speech versus religion versus assembly, and so forth. Those all stand in equal status. One right does not supersede another or obliterate it.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. And I think it’s interesting we talked about this a few days ago, as well, but to try to parse what we’re discussing here and now in the opinions that we hold around freedom of action from companies like Twitter and Facebook, and to square that with perspectives on the Citizens United decision, which for our listeners who may not be familiar this was the pivotal court case several years ago [in 2010] somewhere in there, which essentially held that money is speech in the political realm, and corporations are people. What that essentially means is that a company like Coca Cola, or Ford, or any corporation is considered a person for the sense of political activism and money is speech.
And so, to the extent that we cannot silence or suppress or limit political speech, we can’t limit the influence that big mega-corporations have on the political spectrum, which of course has incredible implications for the amount of influence and manipulation of just sheer public opinion borne out of tremendous amounts of capital that are just inconceivable to the average person and the influence that that has on politics. If you’re, again, a Fortune 100 company and you’re creating a super PAC for a major political candidate. what that means for the way that it swings electoral opinion, it’s incredible. It has these major implications that are important.
So when we think about Citizens United, we have to consider, in my view, when I think about Twitter, and Facebook, the unique nuance there is that these are communications companies. That’s what they do, they have a platform for sharing of information and communication. Unlike the examples that I just provided earlier, Coca Cola and Ford, where communication is not what they do. They make soda and cars. Their house does not consist of a communal communications platform.
Whereas again, we the consumer public, generally, if we have a Twitter account or a Facebook account tend to feel a sense of ownership with those platforms because we use them in our daily lives so much that they feel like they’re ours, but they’re not. We recognize that on paper, but it feels like we should have some type of intrinsic right to use them versus again, a company like Ford or Coca Cola or anybody who’s really not in that sort of social media, news media space doesn’t have that same sort of nuance where the company itself is engaged in communication as part of its very essence.
Dr. Linda Ashar: And so, as we come full circle from Citizens United, which was about a company actively paying in support of a political view. We have companies withdrawing financial support this year, this first quarter of this year, in presumably large sums from political support and making their statement in that way.
Dr. Gary Deel: Exactly. And so is that considered political speech in the same sense that funding in the first place was considered speech? I would imagine so. And I think the larger question that will have to be addressed by some future version of the Supreme Court is whether the Citizens United decision was ultimately a good one on balance, and whether it so unfairly manipulates the political sphere of influence that it bastardizes what we’re attempting to do with political elections and fair communication with the public. That’s a question ultimately, again, for evolved opinions to address in future years and seasons for the court to wrestle with.
But on this particular element, I think it’s interesting how people would look at private companies and argue that there’s almost a government right or duty there to step in and require them to participate and engage with people that they don’t personally agree with.
And we could draw an analogy to a hotel or a restaurant or a business that would be covered under Title II of the Civil Rights Act to say, “Do they have the right to deny a bed or a meal to someone based on their race or their sexual orientation or their skin color or their national origin?” No.
But that’s because again, getting back to our earlier discussion, you have protected classes, and then everything else that’s not specifically identified under the law or court decision as a protected class is free rein for potential discrimination, right, wrong or indifferent.
And so, that’s what’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around is that if it’s not on that list, businesses are, generally speaking, free to prohibit or use discriminatory practices, whether you like them or not, and so it’s up to society to address which ought to be protected for reasons of public wellbeing and ethics.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, just as a little final footnote to the fact that all these companies withdrew support in January. I looked up to see what was happening since. The most recent that I found was February 20th article. Reuters printed a follow up looking at 10 major companies’ contributions that they filed with the Federal Election Commission and 10 major companies have continued to not make contributions.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. Yeah, it seems clear that it’s not just a fleeting fad, but it looks like it will be a lasting trend among CSR efforts. I guess the question over the long term because I don’t think there’s any doubt at least not in my mind that political divisiveness will somehow heal itself or even improve marginally over the next four years. People seem to be as fired up as ever about whatever their political opinions are.
So the question is, what impact will corporate social responsibility within the political sphere have, and will it change opinions among the public? Will it cause just more boycotts and discrimination of where we shop and where we consume based on the political ideologies of the different companies that we share our communities with? Or will it serve as a sort of unification force around guiding people towards some common ethical principles? It’s really hard to say at this point.
Dr. Linda Ashar: I agree. I believe that because of the high number of these companies, and the broad sweep of who they are, and the broad types of industries involved, that their intent is to have some effect. I mentioned in the beginning that part of CSR is an eye to a company’s brand as well as how they can have a positive impact on the bigger social picture. And I do not think for a minute that these decisions, while swift, were made without an eye to their brand, and the need to protect the company’s position in the midst of this storm that was going on.
Dr. Gary Deel: Agreed. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next 12 months and granted over the next four years of the Biden presidency and to the 2024 election, but it seems like the direction we’re headed in is the opposite. So, waiting with cautious optimism. Anything else before we close out, Linda?
Dr. Linda Ashar: No. My final thought listening to what you just said is it’s so far that they haven’t put their money on the extreme side so we’ll just have to wait and see.
Dr. Gary Deel: Agreed. Yeah, and hopefully it does. Well, I want to thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives with us on these topics. And thank you for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible.
Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, it’s a great discussion. We talk about corporate social responsibility a lot in our courses. I think in education we have a responsibility to discuss these things. It’s important to think about.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely, and hopefully our listeners will benefit from the discussion we’ve had today. I know I did for sure. And I want to say thanks to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting our various APU-sponsored blogs. Thanks, be well, and stay safe, everyone.