No Apology for Business

Benjamin Franklin includes  this list in his 1731 “Apology for Printers”:

I request all who are angry with me on the Account of printing things they don’t like, calmly to consider these following Particulars

  1. That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb, So many Men so many Minds.
  2. That the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men’s Opinions; most things that are printed tending to promote some, or oppose others.
  3. That hence arises the peculiar Unhappiness of that Business, which other Callings are no way liable to; they who follow Printing being scarce able to do any thing in their way of getting a Living, which shall not probably give Offence to some, and perhaps to many; whereas the Smith, the Shoemaker, the Carpenter, or the Man of any other Trade, may work indifferently for People of all Persuasions, without offending any of them: and the merchant may buy and sell with Jews, Turks, Hereticks, and Infidels of all sorts, and get money by every one of them, without giving Offence to the most orthodox, of any sort; or suffering the least Censure or Ill-will on the Account from any Man whatever.
  4. That it is as unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is printed, as to think that nobody ought to be pleas’d but themselves.
  5. Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.
  6. Being thus continually employ’d in serving all Parties, Printers naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’d in what they print; regarding it only as the Matter of their daily labour: They print things full of Spleen and Animosity, with the utmost Calmness and Indifference, and without the least Ill-will to the Persons reflected on; who nevertheless unjustly think the Printer as much their Enemy as the Author, and join both together in their resentment.
  7. That it is unreasonable to imagine Printers approve of every thing they print, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly; since in the way of their Business they print such great variety of things opposite and contradictory. It is likewise as unreasonable what some assert, That Printers ought not to print any Thing but what they approve; since if all of that Business should make such a Resolution, and abide by it, an End would thereby be put to Free Writing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of Printers.
  8. That if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.
  9. That if they sometimes print vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged. I have known a very numerous Impression of Robin Hood’s Songs go off in this Province at 2s. per Book, in less than a Twelvemonth; when a small Quantity of David’s Psalms (an excellent Version) have lain upon my Hands above twice the Time.
  10. That notwithstanding what might be urg’d in behalf of a Man’s being allow’d to do in the Way of his Business whatever he is paid for, yet Printers do continually discourage the Printing of great Numbers of bad things, and stifle them in the Birth. I my self have constantly refused to print any thing that might countenance Vice, or promote Immortality; tho’ by complying in such Cases with the corrupt Taste of the Majority, I might have got much Money. I have also always refus’d to print such things as might do real Injury to any Person, how much soever I have been solicited, and tempted with Offers of great Pay; and how much soever I have by refusing got the Ill-will of those who would have employ’d me. I have heretofore fallen under the Resentment of large Bodies of Men, for refusing absolutely to print any of their Party or Personal Reflections. In this Manner I have made my self many Enemies, and the constant Fatigue of denying is almost insupportable. But the Publick being unacquainted with all this, whenever the poor Printer happens either through Ignorance or much Persuasion, to do any thing that is generally thought worthy of Blame, he meets with no more Friendship or Favour on the above Account, than if there were no Merit in’t at all.

I thought of the “Apology” this morning as I read Ross Douthat’s attempt to defend discrimination against LGBT people in The New York Times. He writes:

I think they should be able to decline service for various reasons, religious scruples included. A liberal printer shouldn’t be forced to print tracts for a right-wing cause. A Jewish deli shouldn’t be required to cater events for the Nation of Islam.

Frankly, I am a little surprised that a journalist would be unaware of the “Apology.” In fact, I am surprised that the “Apology” has not been used in the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Not only is it by the founding father of American journalism but it is referred to often in journalism courses even today, so I would have thought members of the media would be familiar with it and would introduce it into the debate.

The apology is not without problems: Point 10 can undercut much of what Franklin lists before. But it raises points about any business that serves the public (in those days, of course, there was no profession of journalism. It was simply a part of the duties of the printer). Even with Point 10 included, it makes a hash of Douthat’s and all of those others’ arguments that people in business can choose the people they serve.

Franklin had been criticized for printing placards that some found offensive. He had been paid to print them: That was his business. Within certain extremely broad guidelines (Point 10), he had to provide it to everyone. Once something has become an accepted part of the broader culture, no business can, according to Franklin, stifle it simply because of personal belief on the part of the business owner.

Franklin does draw a distinction between the printer and those in other businesses but, today, people in those other businesses are drawing questions that once related primarily to printers into their own commercial venues. As they do, they should also recognize what Franklin realized almost three centuries ago, that it is not in the means of communication where responsibility for content lies (again, within certain broad, societal constraints) but with the “author.”

Where commerce is supposed to be neutral, all transactions need to be treated the same. If we cannot provide service equally, we should not be in business, be we printers or anything else.

In the American tradition, it is not up to any merchant to establish the boundaries of commerce. For years, I ran a gift store where I stocked and sold greeting cards. I could order custom cards for people, and sometimes did. I would never have restricted what people could order imprinted on those cards—unless what they wanted fell outside of the bounds of discourse acceptable to U.S. law and custom. Today, LGBT unions fall well inside those bounds. I would not have refused them twenty-one years ago, when we opened the store and LGBT rights had not yet moved into the mainstream. To refuse them today is not only unchristian (to take up another of Douthat’s points—he may want to read the Sermon on the Mount) but clearly an extension of personal beliefs into an area where they don’t belong.

3 thoughts on “No Apology for Business

  1. Aaron, aren’t you guilty of the same mistake Franklin makes in #10 when you write about accepting cards “unless what they wanted fell outside of the bounds of discourse acceptable to U.S. law and custom.” By that standard, wouldn’t you have banned gay-themed cards until, say, the 21st century? And perhaps even today in Indiana? And if we say that anti-gay restaurants must cater gay events, does that also mean that a black business must sell services to a white pride meeting? I still object to the Indiana law, because it declares religion to be the only valid motivation for discrimination, which I think is an unconstitutional establishment. But I am ambivalent about the issue of businesses making their own choices. Take, for example, the business of higher education. In FAIR v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court forced private universities to accept discriminatory military recruiters. I think that decision was wrong, and the government cannot order private universities to open their campus to recruiters they don’t want (even though I think discriminatory military recruiters should have been allowed, but criticized). If you accept the idea that a pizzeria has to cater (literally) to everyone, what are the implication of that principle? Can a business refuse to serve a bunch of obnoxious jerks, or will they fear being sued? On the other hand, I support anti-discrimination employment laws, which have a very similar purpose and may be even more imposing on an employer’s values. So I find this a more difficult dilemma than many people seem to, and even Franklin (and you, it seems) would agree with Douthat that the government shouldn’t force printers to print things they don’t want to.

    • I don’t see where conducting any business transaction is an endorsement. If I were a printer and printed neo-Nazi tracts, it would only be an endorsement if I put the name of my company somewhere on the tract or if I gave them some sort of special deal–for instance, printed the tracts at cost.

      There is a parallel here to free speech exceptions: you can’t make the exceptions that suit your ideology or the whole principle is undermined.

      Political boycotts are usually conducted by costumers against businesses, not business owners against potential customers.

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