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Editor's Desk

By Ken Anderson
Nov 13, 2006 - 4:25:00 PM

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Some of you may be unaware of this, but many of us recently witnessed a local businessman and stakeholder in the Millinocket Area Growth and Investment Council (MAGIC) threatening those, including the Magic City Morning Star, whom he accused of encouraging a boycott of his business ventures.

My initial reaction, had these accusations been made to my face, would have been to deny it, as no one associated with the Magic City Morning Star has been involved in encouraging a boycott of anyone, so far as I am aware.

My denial would have been the truth, but there is much more to the accusation than that. The accusations presupposed that there would have been something wrong with encouraging a boycott of his business, even that this would in some way be illegal. It is this false supposition that I'd like address in this column.

A boycott is the act of abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with someone or some organization as an expression of protest or as a means of coercion.

The word "boycott" is derived from the Captain Charles Boycott, the estate agent of an absentee landlord, Earl Erne of County Mayo, Ireland, who was the subject of social ostracism organized by the Irish Land League in 1880. In September of that year, unhappy tenants demanded a reduction in their rent, and were not only refused by Boycott, but were ejected from their land. In support of the tenants, the Irish Land League proposed that, rather than resorting to violence, everyone in the area should refuse to do business with Boycott. As a result, Boycott soon found himself isolated and in poor financial straits, as his employees quit working in his fields, his stables, as well as his house. Local businessmen refused to trade with him, and even the local mailman refused to deliver his mail.

Boycott was unable to hire anyone to harvest the crops in his charge, forcing him to hire people from the outside, including the hiring of more than a thousand policemen and soldiers, despite the fact that no violence was threatened. In the process, he ended up paying far more than than the harvest was worth. After the harvest, the "boycott" was continued. Captain Boycott left his post on December 1, 1880 and withdrew to England with his family, and within weeks his name had become the word that we use today.

Although the term itself was not coined until 1880, the practice dates back to at least 1830, when the National Negro Convention encouraged a boycott of slave-produced goods. Other notable examples of boycotts are the American boycott of British goods at the time of the American Revolution, its use by African-Americans and others during the U.S. Civil Rights movement, the United Farm Workers Union boycott of grapes and lettuce, the Indian boycott of British goods organized by Mohandas Gandhi, and the Arab League boycott of Israel and companies trading with Israel. Other more recent examples include the United States boycott, under President Jimmy Carter, of the 1980 Summer Olympics, held in Moscow that year, in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and the movement that advocated "disinvestment" in South Africa during the 1980s in opposition to apartheid.

A boycott is normally considered a one-time affair intended to correct a wrong. When a boycott is extended for a long period of time, or as part of an overall program of awareness-raising or reforms to laws or regimes, a boycott is part of moral purchasing, and these other terms are generally used. Organized consumer boycotts focused on bringing about a long-term change of buying habits fit into part of a larger political program, with many techniques that require a longer structural commitment, stretch the definition of a boycott.

The wide availability of Internet access has made boycotts much easier to successfully initiate, using web sites, newsgroups, blogs, and mailing lists. Examples of this would be the boycott initiated by gun owners against the advertisers of the Rosie O'Donnell talk show, as well as the gay and lesbian boycott of Dr. Laura's advertisers.

Due perhaps to the absence of an isolated coordinating body, Internet boycotts often continue long after the originators have moved on to other things. The Dixie Chicks were boycotted after one of its members made a derogatory comment about President Bush, and many country stations still refuse to play their music.

A search on the term "boycott" on Google, or any other Internet search engine, will yield many more current examples. As you can see, boycotts are a legal means of protest in America, as they are in most developed countries.

In response to an Arab boycott of Israel, the United States passed anti-boycott legislation making it illegal to refuse to do business with any country, or company which does business with a repressive regime that is not officially blacklisted by the U.S. State Department, but this does not apply to internal boycotts of American businesses by American citizens.

Interestingly, there are some limitations on the rights of a public official to boycott the personal or business ventures of a citizen, as these may fall into the realm of official oppression.

If you've ever felt cheated by a merchant, you've probably resolved that you'd never shop in his store again. If you were to take that one step further and discourage your friends and family members from shopping at his store, in the hope of pressuring the merchant to resolve the matter, that would be a boycott, loosely defined. It's perfectly legal, as long as you're honest and careful not to violate other laws dealing with libel, slander, and the like.

These are but a few examples illustrating the long history of boycotts throughout the world and within the United States, usually initiated as a means of righting perceived wrongs and giving power to the otherwise powerless.

Despite a great deal of blustering on Internet forums and, more recently, on public-access television, there are no laws prohibiting a boycott against any business or group of enterprises. In the United States, a boycott can be a legitimate means of encouraging fairness on the way to equality, and as a wholly legal way of protesting unfair business practices.

In conclusion, while the Magic City Morning Star has never been involved in promoting or encouraging the organized boycott of anyone's business, there are no laws which would prohibit us from doing this if we were so inclined.

Don't be fooled.


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