Entrepreneurism and Free Speech

What we can learn from Donald Rouse Sr.

Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


 

“I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”

This quotation — variously attributed to Patrick Henry and Voltaire, but actually invented by Voltaire’s biographer — is often considered to be the epitome of one of America’s founding principles, the right to free speech.

In today’s hyper-charged public discourse, the quote might be, “If I disagree with what you say, I will find a way to make you pay.”

How does an entrepreneur balance the right to free speech with the need to keep customers?

As this column was being written, Donald Rouse Sr. was being roundly criticized for attending a rally by former President Trump that preceded the treasonous assault on the United States Capitol. Rouse subsequently denounced the riot and stated that while he had been at the rally, he had not been part of the mob that stormed the Capitol.

This is a key distinction, the difference between free speech and free assembly, and seditious criminal activity. Nevertheless, Rouse’s actions elicited widespread calls to boycott his family’s grocery stores.

By definition, entrepreneurs are bold people, possessed of big ideas and strong opinions, and inclined to action. Further, once their businesses become successful, most entrepreneurs contribute to causes they support, as well they should.

For starters, let’s distinguish between social entrepreneurism — which by design wades into the public arena to promote societal change and cannot be adverse to controversy — and business entrepreneurism, where the primary objective is to create a profitable enterprise.

A business entrepreneur, however, still has to be connected to his/her community, indeed has to care about that community. Few businesses succeed in failed communities. This suggests that business entrepreneurs should engage in advocacy and activism, should support causes that they see as beneficial.

How to do this without creating backlash that damages the business is the question.

I did some research online to explore what the “conventional wisdom” on this might be and found virtually nothing. But as someone who has been both an activist and an entrepreneur, I have some thoughts on the subject.

A business entrepreneur absolutely has to protect the business. This responsibility is owed to staff, investors and all other supporters and stakeholders. We all accept certain roles in life — parent, teacher, public servant — and with each comes responsibilities that may require us to regulate our activities, filter our words.

For entrepreneurs, this may mean keeping quiet about certain issues. Impacts can still be made — for example via anonymous financial contributions — but public exposure can obviously create business vulnerabilities.

One thing to consider is the business’ customer base. The broader the market, the greater the chance of offending the clientele. A business targeted to a smaller segment of the population can be far more visible in supporting causes that are meaningful to that segment, even at the risk of angering the community at large. Indeed, taking a stance in this type of situation could actually benefit the business.

How support for a cause or issue is expressed also matters. Personal advocacy with government officials or quiet monetary contributions are less likely to incur backlash than public appearances or social media postings. Indeed, entrepreneurs should always be cautious about their social media use, and absolutely draw a clear line between personal and business postings.

As a final point, I advise focusing support on entities making positive change, regardless of the issue. Building something up is always more defensible than tearing something down, and entrepreneurs are true builders.

Is it fair that entrepreneurs should be subject to limits on their right to free speech? Probably not. But unless you’ve reached the success level of Bill Gates or George Soros — two entrepreneurs who are constantly attacked for their activism — fairness is not the question. Donald Rouse put his family’s business at risk. All entrepreneurs owe it to their enterprises to think carefully before similarly stepping into the public arena.