Oakland, California seems to be all over news outlets lately. One of the most recent controversies? A coffee shop that refuses service to any uniformed police officer.

What Happened?

Hasta Muerte Coffee has an unwritten policy that they will not serve any uniformed police officer. The coffee shop has not formally responded to a letter mailed by the police union asking for clarification. However, a statement released on the company Instagram said “police presence compromises our feeling of physical and emotional safety.”

Feelings on this matter seem to be mixed. Some people are taking to social media, and to Yelp, to voice their concerns. However, Yelp has been working to remove many posts made in regards to the event. Below is a statement that pops up when you click on the Yelp page for Hasta Muerte Coffee:

While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.

There are also many people who do not feel bothered by the policy, but were actually encouraged by it. One Oakland resident had this to say:

I think that if a group of people don’t feel safe with a police officer currently on duty, coming into a space, they want people in this neighborhood to be able to feel safe, coming into their space, then that is a choice they should be able to make

The Oakland Police Department stated on Twitter that it “respects the rights of business owners to serve anyone they choose.”

However, this begs an important question:

Is This Legal?

With any event like this that clearly toes the line between discrimination and private business rights, we always wonder the same thing.

This is an interesting question, and one that is being challenged in a situational way in virtually all levels of court. Whether it is a florist, a baker, or a coffee shop refusing service, is it their right as a business owner to refuse service to anyone? If not, does the government have a right to force businesses to serve people they don’t want to serve? Can government force private companies to create things they don’t want to create? Where do we draw the arbitrary line in the sand between equality and compelled speech?

Under current California law, unlawful discrimination occurs when a business discriminates against a protected class. Those protected classes include age, disability, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race or color, religion, sex, or veteran status. California law also makes it illegal to discriminate in employment based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and gender expression.

So, it seems like this business is not technically violating any state or federal laws. But this truly is the beauty of the free market. You don’t need the government forcing private businesses to do things against their will in an unconstitutional fashion. Instead, market forces and competition handle that just fine.

A businesses willingly disenfranchises a portion of its consumers, and what happens next? A competing business gladly takes those consumers. People in the community, and across the state or country, launch activist campaigns against your business. This, in turn, is followed by the loss of more and more business to more tolerant businesses. Then, eventually, your business goes under, or at bare minimum takes a large hit in sales.

A Similar Situation

Does this story remind you of anything? Maybe a Christian baker who was vilified, and sued for exhibiting his right to refuse service? Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case currently pending in the Supreme Court deals with this exact situation.

These two stories are not identical. One is a business creating a policy of refusing service outright to a group of people. The other is a man refusing to create something specifically for an event that goes against his religious views. However, the principle–that private business should have the right to refuse service, at its own peril in the free market–applies to both.

This case truly shows the way the left uses mental gymnastics to justify its subjective and situational approach to politics.

It is intellectually inconsistent to justify the actions of Hasta Muerte and condemn Masterpiece Cake Shop in the same breath. They are both examples of private businesses making decisions for themselves, which should be their right. We can disagree with them on a moral and personal level without asking for the government to curtail their rights. These ideas get conflated often in political conversation, and I think it is an important distinction to be aware of.

At the end of the day, this is a problem that the free market will solve–as it always does.