Like any good civil libertarian, I was appalled by Burger King's sniveling capitulation to the Rev. Donald Wildmon. Wildmon's group CLeaR-TV threatened a boycott of the company for advertising on TV shows containing "sex, violence, profanity and anti-Christian bigotry." Within days, Burger King published "An Open Letter to the American People," promising "to support ... traditional American family values on television."

Like any good liberal, I was rather pleased by the mess the state of Arizona finds itself in after citizens voted against a Martin Luther King holiday. The National Football League immediately moved the 1993 Super Bowl, and other sports and tourism promoters are boycotting the state.

When Dayton-Hudson, the department store chain, canceled its contribution to Planned Parenthood because of a boycott threat from right-to-lifers, I was offended. When a boycott threat from pro-choicers revived the contribution, I cheered. Now the pro-lifers are boycotting again.

It's good for society to have an active citizenry and good for individuals to live by their values. Social and political concerns ought to be a part of daily life, not just prejudices to cart into the voting booth every other year (if that). On the other hand, politicizing every economic decision down to which brand of cereal to buy can gum up the gears of commerce, poison social relations, reduce toleration and strain the national sense of humor.

Boycotters of all stripes say it's simply a matter of consumer freedom. "Citizens {can} buy from whomever they want," says John Willke of the National Right to Life Committee. Tyrone Crider, head of PUSH, the black group running a boycott against Nike sports gear, says, "We're simply using our legitimate consumer right not to do business with companies that do not do business with us."

But when boycotts work, it's usually not from actual lost sales to the boycotters themselves. It's from a generalized corporate fear of controversy. Boycotts are a powerful tool in the hands of a noisy minority. For that reason -- and to save our sanity -- a few rules are needed.

Rule 1. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. You can't condemn the other side for using the same tactic you use yourself. The left pioneered the modern boycott era with grapes and Coors beer two decades ago. Now the right has caught on. Fair enough.

Rule 2. Don't use a boycott to deny other people their rights. If Burger King stopped advertising on "anti-Christian" TV shows (whatever those might be) because people were tuning them out, that would be legitimate. But the boycott was aimed precisely at shows that get high ratings. It's an effort to prevent people from watching shows they like. That's wrong.

It also seems wrong to punish the citizens of Arizona for not wanting a King holiday. The purpose of the holiday is to honor a great man. But you can't ram honor down people's throats. Likewise, owner Tom Monahan's role in the antiabortion movement is a bad reason to boycott Domino's Pizza. Domino's doesn't profit from Monahan's politics. You shouldn't use economic pressure to discourage purely political activities. (Corporate contributions to activist groups are different. Corporations justify this use of shareholders' money as a way to improve their image. They can't complain if the image effort backfires.)

Rule 3. Labor law distinguishes between a primary and a secondary boycott. A secondary boycott is aimed at someone you have no dispute with in an attempt to get the target to boycott your real nemesis. The distinction is harder to maintain in practice than in theory. But secondary boycotts are frowned upon under the general principle that there's got to be some limit. It's a good principle. Refusing to wear a fur coat is a primary boycott. Refusing to shop in a store that sells fur coats is a secondary boycott. Think twice. Refusing to buy a newspaper that runs ads from a store that sells fur coats is too much.

Rule 4. A boycott is more compelling if it is aimed at the item that actually causes the offense. Boycotting Morton salt because Morton Thiokol, the same company, makes nuclear weapons parts is not a secondary boycott, but there is no convenient way to boycott nuclear weapons. A boycott of styrofoam containers, however, has more appeal than a boycott of every product by companies that use styrofoam containers.

Rule 5. A boycott shouldn't be a shakedown. PUSH's attempted boycott of Nike seems little better than that. The marketing of $125 gym shoes to poor black kids is an authentic outrage. But PUSH is demanding that Nike hire black advertising agencies, put blacks on its board and so on. It's not clear how this addresses the problem.

Any boycott is a form of blackmail. The more selfless its goal, the more appealing it will be. Whatever you think of them on the merits, right-wing boycotts over the moral tone of society and left-wing boycotts over the future of the planet are easier to swallow than the recent boycott by sports bar owners of beer companies advertising on TV networks that scramble their football broadcasts.

Rule 6. Don't forget your health. Gay activists used to boycott Florida orange juice (because spokeswoman Anita Bryant was an active homophobe). Now they're boycotting Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer (because of corporate contributions to Jesse Helms). Clearly an improvement.

1990, UFS/The New Republic Inc.