Last month, the Denver City Council did a pretty good imitation of The Soup Nazi from the old Seinfeld sitcom (“No Soup for You!”) when it raised objections to leasing Chick-fil-A space for a restaurant at Denver’s airport.
Council members blocked the routine approval of the lease while it investigated its “business practices.” Chick-fil-A’s sin was that Dan Cathy, now the chain’s CEO had opposed gay marriage back in 2012 and a charity tied to the company had contributed to groups hostile to the concept. Cathy has since said he regretted expressing political views on the issue.
But none of that satisfied the chain’s critics. Councilman Jolon Clark sniffed that “we can do better than this brand in Denver at our airport, in my estimation.” Councilwoman Robin Kniech worried the chain would use its profits “to fund and fuel discrimination.”
The move to punish Chick-fil-A for the opinions of its CEO sparked outrage across the country. Then city-council members sat through a closed-door briefing from Denver’s city attorneys, where they were warned that barring a business on the basis of political prejudice would be a one-way ticket to a successful First Amendment lawsuit. Minority groups spoke up against the council, noting that Chick-fil-A’s local partner was a minority-owned business named Delarosa Restaurant Concepts.
At least one council member fretted that continued opposition to Chick-fil-A’s application would open a can of worms. A May audit by the city of Denver had found that half of the airport’s food and beverage business was in the hands of just three operators. “The auditor exposed ‘questionable’ financial wealth claims by some concession owners certified by the city as ‘economically disadvantaged,’” reported columnist Michelle Malkin.
Having an ugly fight over chicken at the airport would open up the manipulation of the airport concession process. Last fall, a business group called DIA Retail filed suit against the city council for allegedly joining with airport officials to unfairly rig the winning bids for running the airport’s duty-free shops.
So suddenly, Denver’s city council proclaimed itself satisfied that Chick-fil-A was worthy of an airport lease. “I don’t have any concerns about moving this forward based on what I’ve learned in the last two weeks,” Councilwoman Kniech said.
Sadly, while Chick-fil-A won this round, it was in a fight it should never had to engage in. None of the city-council members who expressed a desire to deny its lease have backed down from the position that they had to right to exclude Chick-fil-A because they didn’t like it. “I think it’s important that [for] every contract, we have the opportunity to question and comment on everything that comes through,” maintains Councilman Paul Lopez. In other words, the political speech police are still armed and dangerous when it comes to deciding just what businesses pass muster in Denver and in many other cities.