College students protest a lot of things, but fried chicken isn’t usually one of them. That changed this week, when students at Johns Hopkins University voted to ban Chick-fil-A from campus, citing the fast food chain CEO’s stance on gay marriage as the reason. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy is famously opposed to same-sex marriage, and the student government of Johns Hopkins says that the Atlanta-based chain’s presence on campus would constitute a “microagression” against the Baltimore college’s LGBT community.
Student-run website The College Fix reported Thursday that Johns Hopkins’ Student Government Association approved a resolution calling for administrators to halt any plans to bring Chick-fil-A to campus. After construction on a sizable mixed-use development began on campus, student requests indicated that Chick-fil-A would be a favored food option, sparking concerns that a Chick-fil-A outlet might be brought on as a tenant. “The SGA does not support the proposal of a Chick-fil-A, in a current or future sense, particularly on any location that is central to student life,” the resolution states.
The resolution goes on to highlight that “visiting prospective and current students, staff, faculty, and other visitors who are members of the LGBTQ+ community or are allies would be subjected to the microaggression of supporting current or future Chick-fil-A development plans.” Although the resolution was approved by the association, Time highlights that the move was largely symbolic — since there had been no concrete indication that the college administration were in negotiations with Chick-fil-A in the first place. Nevertheless, the vote eloquently expresses the association’s pro-gay marriage stance.
And the SGA’s concerns were not entirely unwarranted. Chick-fil-A has done business with Johns Hopkins before, The College Fix notes, selling items at the university’s Homewood Field as recently as 2012. The chain’s connection to the college caused concern even at that time. That year, Cathy stoked controversy by claiming that Chick-fil-A was “guilty as charged” regarding its anti-gay marriage stance. He elaborated:
We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that...we know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.
After the uproar, Chick-fil-A quickly released a clarifying statement in an attempt at damage control. “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 read. “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
The perceived scramble to save the company from its outspoken CEO didn’t prevent continued outrage, however — particularly among student groups. Johns Hopkins is only the latest of several campuses that have sought to ban the chicken joint. In January 2012, even before Cathy made his comments, a New York University freshman launched a petition to close the university’s franchise, claiming that the company’s intolerant stance was anathema to NYU’s diverse community. “[M]aintaining a contract with an anti-gay vendor like Chick-fil-A undermines what makes this university so great,” Hillary Dworkoski wrote in her petition.
The next month, Northeastern University reportedly quashed plans for an on-campus Chick-fil-A outlet, due to student concerns over the company’s “history of donating to anti-gay organizations.” Later that year, Elon University, in North Carolina, joined the fray, when the student government voted to remove a Chik-fil-A franchise from the campus.
At the start of this year, Indiana University students at the college’s Bloomington campus voted to cut ties with Chick-fil-A, after the administration asked their opinion on whether to continue hosting a franchise on campus. To continue supporting Chick-fil-A, the student representatives decided, would be incongruent with their attempt to build an “inclusive” campus community.
Although in each of these cases the student body decisions are not final — the ultimate say in the matter comes down to the administration — each vote is a powerful expression of the pro-gay marriage stance that predominates on the country’s campuses. The anti-Chik-fil-A initiatives have not gone unnoticed by conservative media outlets, which have denounced such “bans” as intolerant.
Earlier this week, The National Review opened a piece on the Johns Hopkins vote with the line: “A new spirit of intolerance has arisen on the Johns Hopkins University campus, and conservative Christians are the targets.” Andrew Guernsey, a JHU student, goes on to argue that, “In banning Chick-fil-A from campus for ‘homophobia,’ the JHU student government is only a short step from similarly giving the boot to socially conservative Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and Jewish student groups from campus.”
But Guernsey makes a fair point: the impulse to make campuses “safe spaces,” shielded from challenging ideas, is a potentially dangerous one. Judith Shulevitz wrote in The New York Times recently that safe spaces “are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” Instead, Shulevitz argues:
People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.
Perhaps this is all a bit highfalutin for a discussion about chicken sandwiches, but Guernsey doesn’t think so. “The entire notion of keeping the university a ‘safe space,’ free from one side of a debate on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, is absolutely antithetical to Johns Hopkins’ stated commitment to the free and robust exchange of ideas,” he writes.
In any case, scattered campus protests seem to have done little to halt the privately-held fast food behemoth's rise. In 2014, Time reported that "despite its limited presence and tainted reputation," Chick-fil-A had managed to surpass its competition in terms of market share, emerging to rival giants like McDonald's and KFC.
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