How the Obama Administration Turned Regulators Into the Speech Police

In this screengrab from video, Don Vander Boon works in his office at West Michigan Beef Company.

By Maggie Gallagher Published on May 11, 2017

The saga of Don Vander Boon has received little attention outside the Christian media. But among the growing threats to the livelihoods of gay marriage dissenters, the Vander Boon case stands out.

The family runs the West Michigan Beef Company for, as they put it, “the glory of God.” This is what they tell their employees. No employee has ever complained.

According to Don Vander Boon, the trouble with the USDA meat inspectors began in 2015. One day, he saw newspaper and magazine articles celebrating gay marriage in the company break room. So, he printed off an article explaining why gay marriage was against God’s will. He put the essay on the breakroom table with the other magazines.

Unfortunately for the Vander Boons and their employees, on July 1, 2015, then Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack issued an “Anti-Harassment Policy Statement.” He told USDA inspectors what to do if they spotted any “disrespectful” written or oral communication on LGBT issues. The inspectors now had an obligation to “take immediate and appropriate corrective action.”

Just think what an army of regulators can do to freedom if the government tells them to take immediate corrective action.

Going Off the Record

Let’s pause for a minute and see what this means. In the past, someone would have to complain before federal agencies charged with preventing discrimination investigate a company. This creates a “case and controversy” and a public record on which courts can intervene. But here the USDA instructed the meat inspectors to intervene on their own.

What does that look like in practice?

In 2015, Dr. Ryan Lundquist, the USDA’s inspector in charge, saw the offending article. He removed it and reported it to USDA Frontline Supervisor Robert Becker. The two men then called Vander Boon on the carpet. Behind closed doors, and without witnesses, they told Vander Boon three times he had to remove that article or else. What was that else? They would withdraw all USDA meat inspectors. That would, in effect, shut down his business.

Think about the vast web of health, safety, environmental, investment, banking and tax regulations that surround us. They’re supposed to exist to further some public good, not to harass dissenters for the current sexual orthodoxy.

Becker pointed to the new anti-harassment policies. Karnail S. Mudahar confirmed to Vander Boon that the meat inspectors’ new anti-gay marriage morality policing was pursuant to policy. When the Daily Signal called the USDA, the agency said it has “zero tolerance for any form of workplace harassment or intimidation.”

Regulating the First Amendment Away

Think about the vast web of health, safety, environmental, investment, banking and tax regulations that surround us. They’re supposed to exist to further some public good, not to harass dissenters for the current sexual orthodoxy. Just think what this army of regulators can do to freedom if the government tells them to take immediate corrective action.

This is all according to Vander Boon of course. The USDA has never publicly commented on the matter. A private conversation is not a public act. The courts can’t review it. So far, the USDA has refused to respond to Don Vander Boon’s formal complaint, except to say they had passed it on to the USDA’s Civil Rights office.

Now imagine a good Christian man facing the real threat of losing a family business, one on which your family and your employees’ families depend. Even if you finally could win in the end, the business would still be gone. Your suppliers and your customers would have gone elsewhere while waiting for the meat inspector to return.

How widespread is the use of health, safety, investment, environmental and/or banking regulators to “directly intervene” in enforcing speech codes?

Even if the threat is not credible, it’s free speech buzzkill.

Should Christians in Business Just Stay Silent?

Maybe you think Don Vander Boon took an unneeded risk. Sir Thomas More himself might have advised silent prudence. But a man like Don Vander Boon should not have to face such dilemmas. He does so because one side of a culture debate now has all the power. Gay marriage dissenters are punished. Advocates are celebrated. The net result is to kill free speech on one side of the debate.

I’ve seen the same dynamic at work when I was on the frontlines of the gay marriage debate. In one epic state battle for a marriage amendment, every wealthy man I asked to donate to get the measure on the ballot faced private attacks on his business interests. In some cases, it was as slight as a complaint from a major vendor. “We only do business with companies that have a nondiscrimination policy,” one CEO was told. “And your personal donation to this marriage amendment calls into question your company’s commitment to nondiscrimination.”

Virtually no businessman whose business was attacked in this way donated again. But no businessman who gave in support of gay marriage was ever attacked for it.

And this was just a private behind-the-scenes business threat, backed by no government power.

One thing we know: The regulatory state now has power that it should not have.

How widespread is the use of health, safety, investment, environmental and/or banking regulations to “directly intervene” in enforcing speech codes? How many other federal regulators now see themselves as the speech police? How many businesses and workers, which we never hear about, receive such threats?

Congress Should Investigate

Here’s one way we could find out: The Republican Congress could investigate. They could subpoena Dr. Ryan Lindquist and Robert Becker and Karnail S. Mudahar and ask them: Did you make this threat? Was it based on government policy? How many other times have you threatened to pull health and safety inspectors because you saw a pro-gay marriage pamphlet lying on a table? Have you used the pretense of safety to squelch free speech?

That last question refers to what may be now be happening to the Vander Boons’ company. (I owe my knowledge of this phase in the USDA battle to gay bloggers.) Last August 16, the USDA sent a letter threatening to pull meat inspectors and shut down the Vander Boons’ West Michigan Beef Company.

Why? It has nothing to do with gay marriage. Instead an inspector claimed he saw a violation of humane slaughtering laws.

The GOP Congress needs to pass some version of the First Amendment Defense Act.

Let me quote at length from that letter:

On August 15, 2016, at approximately 1310 hours, the Supervisory Public Health Veterinarian (SPHV) observed a downed dairy heifer in the barn and an employee attempting to captive bolt stun the down animal to render it insensible. Your written animal welfare program describes the procedure for disposal of down cattle requires that after the animal is captive bolt stunned, it is immediately stuck in the heart to initiate exsanguination and ensure humane euthanasia. After the application of the captive bolt stunner to the head of the dairy heifer, the employee was observed to stick the animal in the heart area of the chest with a long blade knife. The SPHV noticed the animal exhibited rapid eye movement and natural blinking. The respiratory rate began to increase and the animal began vocalizing. The employee did not have additional cartridge charges for the hand held captive bolt device or any means of re-stunning the animal located in the immediate area. The employee left the area to retrieve additional cartridges. The animal continued to exhibit rapid breathing and increased vocalization until the employee returned approximately one minute later, reloaded, and applied the hand held captive bolt device, successfully rendering the animal insensible at that time.

Charged for Following Procedure

So, by the USDA’s own account, the employee obeyed the proper procedures. Due to a technical error, the cow was only partly sedated and experienced pain. The employee went for another stun gun charge, soon returned, and sedated the cow. The USDA’s letter calls this incident “an egregious violation of the humane handling requirements specified within the provisions of 21 U.S.C. 603, Section 3 (b) of the FMIA, and 7 U.S.C. 1901 and 1902 of the HMSA of 1978.”

Really? Might this be regulatory revenge against the family-owned business? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. One thing we know: The regulatory state now has power that it should not have. It gives bureaucrats the authority to treat a good faith glitch as an egregious attempt to break the law. In politicized regimes (aka “banana republics”) the heavy hammer of the government swings above the head of any political dissident who runs a business.

The regulatory state gives bureaucrats the authority to treat a good faith glitch as an egregious attempt to break the law.

Congress Must Act to Defend Our Freedom

What can we do to stop this shut down on free speech?

President Trump’s executive order won’t help. The GOP Congress needs to pass some version of the First Amendment Defense Act. It should give private people like Don Vander Boon the right to sue when regulations are misused to punish gay marriage dissenters.

Unlike many conservatives, I’m not upset at President Trump. During the campaign, he avoided the conflict between gay marriage dissenters and the LGBT community. He pivoted to the Johnson Amendment whenever the subject came up. He is doing the one concrete thing that he promised to do: appointing spectacular judges.

These judges will help. But they won’t help the Vander Boons much unless we can persuade Congress that it’s in their interest to pass new laws to protect dissenters.

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