Celebrity author and comic Joan Rivers is demanding justice from Costco, claiming the giant retailer violated her First Amendment rights. So does Rivers really have a case?
On the surface, the answer would be a firm no. But in every cloud there is a silver lining, and Rivers’ 30-minute temper tantrum at a Costco in California has put the name of the First Amendment back in the news.
In the past few weeks, the First Amendment debate has been over Chick-fil-A and the rights of chairman Dan Cathy to voice his objections to same-sex marriage.
While some people don’t agree with Cathy’s comments, most people understand he has the right, under the First Amendment, to voice an opinion, just as Cathy’s critics have the right to stop buying Chick-fil-A products.
So the controversy over Chick-fil-A prompted dialogue over the First Amendment--and the agreement on the First Amendment, among people who didn't agree on Chick-fil-A's stance, lent some civility to the contentious debate over the chicken retailer.
In the case of Costco, Rivers says the retailer is just plain chicken for refusing to carry her latest book.
Costco reportedly balked at the book because it has two obscene words on the back jacket cover of I Hate Everything … Starting With Me.
At a Burbank, California, Costco store, Rivers, 79, handcuffed herself to a shopping cart on August 7 while repeatedly saying Costco was violating her First Amendment rights by not selling her books.
“They have no right; the First Amendment says I can sell my book,” Rivers said at her protest, as several of her associates shouted “First Amendment!”
Rivers ended her protest talking more about the First Amendment, before police escorted away.
Later on Twitter, Rivers again joked about the First Amendment issue.
“Thank you ALL so much for your support! I embrace my First Amendment Rights to free speech. And my book 'I Hate Everyone' sure proves that!” she said on Twitter.
And in an interview with Yahoo! she repeated her stance that her First Amendment concerns were more than a publicity stunt.
In reality, Costco doesn’t really have a legal obligation, under the First Amendment, to sell any product.
The First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech and doesn’t get into the issue of commerce.
Also, Costco is notoriously picky about the products it sells. If you have seen CNBC’s documentary on Costco, there is a long evaluation process for a small number of products sold there.
On a May 2012 conference call, the company’s CFO said Costco currently carries about 3,700 products, a much lower amount than retail competitors.
At last check, Rivers’ book wasn’t ranked in among top 100 sellers in Amazon’s best seller list. It was listed number 11 in the humor category.
Gene Policinski from the First Amendment Center, in a commentary, says Rivers should be criticized for comparing Costco to Nazi Germany, but not for bringing up the First Amendment.
“The 45 words of the First Amendment apply only to government, no matter how large or small the store is,” said Policinski.
“When only 4% of us can name all five freedoms in the First Amendment, as found in the 2012 State of the First Amendment survey, any bit of education is welcome. At least Rivers named the right amendment.”
Hopefully, Rivers won’t make the argument that her book should be sold based on the taxing power or commerce clause of the Constitution.
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