The Vermont Bacon Affair: Is there a there there?

August 29, 2014

Like many people, I was intrigued by the story of the Vermont restaurant that removed a sign advertising bacon because it was supposedly insensitive to Muslims. But, looking into it a bit more, I wonder whether this is a tempest in a frying pan.

An early source of the story, a week ago, was this WPTZ-TV item. What seems well-settled is that Sneakers Bistro, a local restaurant, paid money to maintain a flowerbed on city property, and in exchange got the right to put up a small advertising sign — a yellow diamond that said, “YIELD FOR Sneakers BACON.” Then, according to WPTZ, one woman, who identified herself “as a vegan living in a Muslim household” said “the sign was insensitive to those who do not consume pork.” The restaurant then took down the sign.

Now these might just be my prejudices showing, but my sense is that (at least in America today) this is more characteristic of (some) vegans than of Muslims. Many vegans think that eating meat supports violence against animals, and are thus bothered by other people eating meat. Muslims don’t share that view, or view pigs as sacred; they view pigs as unclean, and oppose eating them, but they’re not generally upset by others eating them or promoting them, at least unless the promotion is seen as somehow targeted at taunting Muslims (though I’m sure that, as with any group, there are some exceptions). To be sure, Muslims might not want to eat in a restaurant that serves pork, because of cross-contamination issues, and of course devout Muslims wouldn’t eat any non-halal meat. But my sense is that signs promoting bacon are more likely to upset vegans than Muslims, and are more likely to have upset this particular vegan Muslim (elsewhere I’ve seen it said that she indeed described herself as a Muslim) because of the “vegan” part than the “Muslim” part.

In any event, even if my speculation is wrong, the only concrete evidence I’ve seen so far is that this was one complaint by a local resident. (This story reports “several Facebook and Yelp comments calling on Sneakers Bistro to take down the sign,” but I couldn’t find any specific examples — the Yelp comments about the controversy have apparently been taken down, and so has the restaurant’s Facebook page — and I couldn’t tell how many there were, whether they were from Muslims, and whether they were from local residents.)

News coverage, though, talked about how the sign “offends Muslim residents” (note the plural) and how the sign was removed “after Muslims complain”. A seemingly non-mainstream-media source even reported, “Madness: Muslim Outrage Forces Vermont Restaurant To Take Down Harmless Sign”; “[t]oday, it was reported that a restaurant in Vermont was besieged by complaints from Muslim residents and forced to take down a sign that advertised how good its bacon was.” Maybe there is factual evidence out there that I’m missing, but it sounds to me like a game of broken telephone.

There is also talk of how the restaurant was responding to “safety concerns,” and that was indeed part of the quote from the restaurant owners. But emphasizing that — as one article literally did, “there were also concerns raised about safety (emphasis added)” — strikes me as misleading. My sense is that this was meant to suggest some threat against the restaurant if it didn’t remove the bacon sign, and that would indeed be bad. But here’s what seems a likelier explanation; according to USA Today, here’s what the woman wrote:

“Given the large number of Muslim families in Winooski, as well as many others who do not eat pork for a variety of reasons, it seems unnecessary for this insensitive business sign to be at the city’s main crosswalk,” she wrote. The woman also complained that the sign “clutters an already dangerous crosswalk.”

From the video image of the sign, I’m skeptical about the safety concerns. But I suspect the restaurant’s mention of safety concerns referred to this, not to some threat against the restaurant, especially since I’ve seen no reference at all to any such threat (other than the general “safety concerns” point).

Now the restaurant owners pretty clearly made a poor and expensive business decision here. There are many more bacon lovers who are likely to stay away from the restaurant as a result of the sign removal than bacon haters who are likely to go to the restaurant as a result. And while I sympathize with the restaurant owners’ desire to just stay away from controversy, their actions were predictably unsuccessful in doing so. (Unless, of course, it’s just an elaborate publicity stunt, which I doubt, though who knows?)

But I get the sense that people are seeing this as stemming from the actions of local “Muslims” as a community, who are trying to interfere with our American love for bacon — where actually it might just come from one local Muslim/vegan with her own idiosyncratic agenda. Longtime readers of this blog are aware that I am willing to point to what I see as excessive accommodations of religious believers, including of Muslims (see, e.g., the posts and threads on thuggery against Bible Believers, the Zombie Mohammed parade incident, the Mohammed cartoons, suppression of allegedly blasphemous speech, and the New Jersey rape “cultural defense” case). Here, though, the story seems to be one of overreaction, by the complainer, by the business, and by many who have commented on the incident.

For the record, I think bacon is delicious.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Jess Martin, here is the complaint that started it all:

Please Remove “Sneakers” Sign from Circle Crosswalk …

There is a sign on the lamp post at the crosswalk downtown that says “Yield for Sneakers Bacon.” I strongly believe and request that this sign be removed. I will express my concerns to the city about this, but I wanted to post here as well for more people in our community to know. It should be removed because of two main reasons:

First, it’s insensitive and offensive to those who do not consume pork. As a vegan and a member of a Muslim household, this sign personally offends me twice a day as I go to-and-from the bus stop. Given the large number of Muslim families in Winooski, as well as many others who do not eat pork for a variety of reasons, it seems unnecessary for this insensitive business sign to be at the city’s main crosswalk. Moreover, it creates barriers in making our community inclusive to the diverse people who live here, as well as likens pedestrians to dead pigs (is that what the cars are supposed to be stopping for?!).

Second, it clutters an already dangerous crosswalk. This signage for a business’ food distracts from the purpose of that area: for pedestrians to safely cross and for drivers to safely enter the circle. What is the additive safety factor of this sign being there? I fail to see what benefit it affords people in that intersection and why the city put it up. The only appropriate signage would be standardized official road signs pertaining to the crosswalk and circle.

Although I love Sneakers and the delicious food they serve, I strongly believe this sign is unnecessary, offensive, insensitive, and should therefore be taken down.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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