Free Speech and Corporations

The recent large-scale protests in Hong Kong, sparked by a proposed bill allowing Hong Kong to extradite people to mainland China, have led to a reexamination of political speech by American corporations and individuals. Recent capitulations by companies in the face of Chinese criticisms have exposed the reality that political speech by American corporations is not value-based, but rather tends to be a business decision based on the perceived political leanings of customers or the powerful.

As a quick refresher: in the midst of the Hong Kong demonstrations Daryl Morey,  general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted a brief message in support of the protesters. Though the tweet was quickly deleted, the damage to the franchise in China was done. The Rockets’ fan base there (especially large because of Yao Ming’s career in Houston) reacted in fury. Prominent Chinese citizens spoke out against Morey and the NBA, and major Chinese sponsors pulled their sponsorships of the Rockets. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has attempted to mend fences, so far with little success. Other firms have also run afoul of Chinese politics, with Nike removing a line of sneakers from China after its designer voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters.

Political speech by business enterprises has long been a topic of public discussion, but the debate intensified after NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. In the uproar that followed, individuals and companies had to walk a fine line between supporting Kaepernick and keeping silent. A few firms, notably Nike and the NBA, went all-in on social justice, branding themselves as socially liberal and as standing up for these values as a business. In doing so, they made the calculation that either a certain line of political speech is beneficial to their businesses, or many of their customers, employees, or other stakeholders demand these political stances regardless of a possible negative business impact. 

But oh, how the mighty have fallen. Given the opportunity to take a corporate stand for very similar values in China and the United States, Nike, the NBA, and other firms have blinked. The NBA and many of its stars walked back Morey’s comments, while Nike pulled a controversial line of sneakers from Chinese stores. To be crystal clear, these firms have happily advertised themselves as against police brutality in the U.S., but remained docile when watching shocking images of police officers beating and shooting protesters in Hong Kong. How do we resolve this contradiction?

The hypocrisy shown by these firms suggests that business considerations play a significant role in deciding what a company’s values and positions are. It is much easier for firms to espouse a potentially controversial political opinion in a nation which guarantees the freedom of speech, and minimal government interference in a business, than in an authoritarian nation where the whims of one ruler can quickly sink years of a firm’s market positioning. This should also make us question whether corporations hold the values they say they do, or if almost all of their political speech is simply an attempt at branding to appeal to a perceived audience. In Nike’s case, the company clearly does not “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” as their ads with Kaepernick are meant to suggest.

A perfect solution is nearly impossible. One start, however, would be for firms to minimize their political speech in the first place, especially since it is highly unlikely that a business’s employees and customers all share the same views. Instead of frequent political statements of their own, businesses should grant their employees wide latitude to engage in political speech. This would reduce criticisms that they are flaunting values for marketing purposes, and keep the company or sports league focused on producing high-quality products or teams as efficiently as possible, not appealing to people by lining up with the latest political trend. (Striking the right balance in regard to an authoritarian state, like China, is more difficult.) Morey tweeted as an individual, but his employer has received the brunt of criticism for what he said. If business enterprises were consistently apolitical organizations that let employees engage in political speech, this could help to prevent the kind of economic pain felt by the NBA right now. Although it wouldn’t solve every conflict that is involved when conflicting sets of liberties collide, it should help to foster a healthy norm of attributing political speech only to individuals, not their employers.