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The Goya Foods free speech controversy, explained

Goya Foods’ CEO says his speech is being suppressed by a boycott. It’s not.

A Black man in a hair net stacks yellow and blue boxes of Goya’s “Spanish Style” yellow rice on a pallet.
Goya rice being packed for distribution at the company’s Secaucus, New Jersey, factory in 2013.
Yana Paskova/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue said on Friday that a growing boycott of his company in response to his recent praise of President Donald Trump amounts to a “suppression of speech,” tapping into the president’s ongoing narrative that liberals are proponents of an oppressive “cancel culture” that punishes those who exercise their right to free speech.

Calls for a boycott emerged after Unanue said that Trump was an “incredible builder” and that the US was “blessed” to have him as president at a White House event on Thursday meant to highlight a new advisory commission on creating economic opportunities for Latinx Americans. The praise elicited criticism from progressives, and a boycott campaign of Goya Foods backed by prominent political and cultural leaders like Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda rapidly spread across social media.

In an interview on Fox & Friends, Unanue argued that the online campaign revealed a double standard, pointing to the fact that he attended a healthy eating initiative at the invitation of former president Barack Obama and and first lady Michelle Obama in 2012.

“So you’re allowed to talk good or to praise one president, but you’re not allowed, when I was called to be part of this commission to aid in economic and educational prosperity and you make a positive comment, all of a sudden that’s not acceptable,” Unanue said.

“So, you know, I’m not apologizing for saying — and especially if you’re called by the president of the United States, you’re going to say, ‘No, I’m sorry, I’m busy. No thank you.’ I didn’t say that to the Obamas, and I didn’t say that to President Trump,” he added.

Conservative politicians and pundits have leaped on the boycott, popularized online as the #Goyaway campaign, as another sign of the existence of an extremist left seeking to obliterate discourse — and to enact punitive measures against those they disagree with.

“The Left is trying to cancel Hispanic culture and silence free speech. #BuyGoya,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeted on Friday. Fox News contributor and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee tweeted: “Cancel-culture leftists don’t need beans. Their speeches & whining already produce all the gas the planet can take.”

But while Unanue and his supporters on the right are decrying the boycott as an attack on his right to speech, in reality, it’s simply criticism of his political gestures.

“‘Buycotting’ is not suppressing speech. In fact, it is the opposite,” Jaime Settle, a scholar of American political behavior at the College of William and Mary, told me. “Corporate leaders have a choice: If they choose to publicly disclose their political views, they should expect people to respond by expressing their own, even if the public channels that speech through consumer habit.”

Unanue’s right and capacity to express his ideas about the president — or any other matter — remain intact even if profit margins at Goya, a multibillion-dollar company, take a hit due to pushback from boycott campaigns. Instead of free speech, the core issue is the social consequences that accompany taking a political position in a highly polarized political climate.

Unanue’s comments have turned Goya Foods into a left-right proxy war

Unanue, the head of the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the US, appeared at the White House on Thursday to announce that Goya Foods would be donating 1 million cans of chickpeas as well as 1 million pounds of food to food banks as part of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, a new advisory commission created by Trump tasked with increasing Hispanic access to economic and educational opportunities.

When Unanue spoke at the Rose Garden event at a podium just feet away from Trump, he did not just announce his donation but also offered praise of the president, likening him to his own grandfather, a Spanish immigrant who founded Goya in 1936.

“We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder,” he said. “And so we have an incredible builder. And we pray. We pray for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country, that we will continue to prosper and to grow.”

Unanue‘s decision to laud the president resulted in sharp blowback among Latinx progressives, who argued that Unanue’s celebration of the Trump presidency marked a betrayal of the Latinx community that buys his company’s products.

@GoyaFoods has been a staple of so many Latino households for generations. Now their CEO, Bob Unanue, is praising a president who villainizes and maliciously attacks Latinos for political gain,” tweeted former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro. “Americans should think twice before buying their products.”

Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, tweeted, “We learned to bake bread in this pandemic, we can learn to make our own adobo con pimienta. Bye.”

United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization, created a petition slamming Unanue for aligning with Trump and calling for a boycott of the company; #Goyaway and #BoycottGoya trended on Twitter after the remarks.

Commentators on the right responded to the boycott campaign with their own hashtag: #BuyGoya. Conservative pundits and politicians described the boycott as an attack on Unanue’s freedom of speech, and advocated for pushing back by stocking up on Goya products.

Amid the blowback, Unanue decided to appear on Fox News and Fox Business on Friday.

On Fox & Friends — one of Trump’s favorite television shows and a bastion of far-right thinking — Unanue began the interview by saying, “It’s good to be with some friends.” During the interview, he said the boycott constituted a “suppression of speech”; that he would not apologize for his remarks; and that the reaction to his praise of Trump revealed a double standard since his appearance at the Obama White House in 2012 garnered no controversy.

Later on Fox Business — during an interview he began by telling the host that he was doing a “great job” — he said the boycott was “a reflection, I believe, of the division that exists today in our country ... this great divide is killing our nation — we’re tearing down statues of Jesus Christ.”

“Abraham Lincoln had the great quote, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ And this can be the destruction of our nation, we are at that point,” he said.

In adopting this language, Unanue and his supporters have framed the boycotts as the latest example of an overzealous left that seeks to suppress the expression of everything it doesn’t like. Unanue’s comment about statues of Jesus being attacked evokes Trump’s talk of statue-toppling as a sign of a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.”

Trump has, in recent months, portrayed efforts by anti-racist protesters to pull down or criticize memorials commemorating historical figures who supported slavery, white supremacy, or colonialism as an attack on American values. (There are no signs that statues of Jesus are generally being targeted by protests, but there has been criticism of Eurocentric depictions of his image.) While protesters see these symbols as inappropriate celebrations of America’s history of white supremacy, Trump has tried to argue in highly racialized and nativist language that efforts to remove them represent a “totalitarian” crackdown on expression of identity.

But this language obscures the issue at hand. Anti-racist protesters aren’t disputing the right of people to discuss Confederate leaders; they’re protesting their celebration. And similarly, Unanue is not having his views suppressed — he’s receiving criticism for signaling support for policies that boycotters see as unjust.

The boycotts aren’t suppression. They’re just more speech.

Freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights refers to restrictions on state action (specifically Congress’s ability to make laws) on the freedom of the public and the press to express their views. Boycotts led by consumers, experts say, fall under protected speech.

“Calls for economic boycotts are clearly speech, not the suppression of speech. Consumers have long tied politics to purchasing, and advocating business boycotts is undoubtedly protected speech,” Timothy Zick, a professor of government and citizenship at the College of William and Mary Law School, told me. “Mr. Unanue runs a large corporation, so it rings hollow to suggest that individual consumers are in any way suppressing his speech.”

One relevant precedent here is a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that an NAACP boycott of white merchants in Mississippi seeking to secure “compliance by both civic and business leaders with a lengthy list of demands for equality and racial justice,” was protected by the First Amendment.

Given that the boycott does not represent an infringement on his First Amendment rights, Unanue’s more substantive grievance might then appear to be that it’s unfair for his company to be penalized for his appearing at a presidential event, something he’s done before. But this line of thinking is flawed for a number of reasons.

The political climate is vastly different than the last time Unanue appeared at a presidential event: Trump has successfully worked to dramatically polarize American politics for the entirety of his presidency — even turning a public health emergency into a partisan war — and thus voluntary affiliation with his administration is rarely, if ever, perceived as neutral.

That polarization has been accomplished in part through Trump’s denigration of the US’s Latinx community, from the moment he kicked off his first presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals to his recent inability to address record-high Latinx unemployment. And Trump’s immigration policy has targeted Latinx people in particular — featuring, for example, harsh detainment policies like child separation that violate international human rights standards.

“This is only one small chapter in a much wider problem of polarization over a host of issues,” Mugambi Jouet, a professor who specializes in polarization at McGill University, told me, noting that “the fundamental issues at play here are the question of immigration and xenophobic discourse and agenda of the Trump administration.”

Unanue has chosen to jump into the political fray at every juncture of this episode. Crucially, he chose not only to affiliate with Trump, but also praised the president in strong terms. And then Unanue went on to do two distinctly chummy interviews on Fox News where he said people criticizing him were the real source of division in the country.

The speed and intensity at which the backlash came is a function of this polarization — after three years of the Trump administration, very few Americans have ambivalent feelings about the president — but the boycotts themselves are an outgrowth of anger at the policies and behavior Jouet outlined.

Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, told the New York Times that Unanue’s comments were a “betrayal” for many in the Latinx community who “see Trump as the antithesis of Latinos, in fact, as the enemy.”

For Unanue — the leader of a brand that “represents nurture and community and family and most importantly the kitchen” for Latinx Americans, according to Arellano — to endorse a president who has caused that community, and other communities of color, so much pain brings many a great deal of distress. Not only because Unanue said Trump himself was “incredible,” but because with his praise, Unanue seemed to endorse the president’s damaging policies.

Also of concern to those boycotting Goya are Unanue’s actions — not just his willingness to seek the friendly confines of Fox News, but his financial contributions to lawmakers who have enacted right-wing policies. Per CNN’s David Goldman:

Unanue has donated to Republicans in recent years, including $6,000 to the Republican National Committee and $1,000 to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2017 when he was running for president, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Unanue also gave $2,300 to New Jersey’s Democratic Senator Robert Menendez in 2010.

Robert’s brother Peter, who serves as Goya’s executive vice president, gave $100,000 to the anti-abortion National Right to Life Victory fund in 2012. And other Unanue family members who are shareholders of Goya have given thousands of dollars to other, mostly Republican candidates and politicians, including Trump.

Unanue remains free to express his political opinions. He took advantage of this freedom at the White House, and again on Fox News. What he’s witnessing with a boycott is not an agenda to prevent him from speaking his mind, but a rejection among a vocal set of fellow citizens of the ideas and endorsements he’s chosen to align himself with.

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