Georgia and Delta Relationship Hits Turbulence

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By Sabrina Heck, Staff Member (Vol. 16)

In light of the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, corporations like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart have changed their policies on gun sales. Other major corporations, such as First National Bank of Omaha, MetLife, Hertz, and Symantec, have diminished or discontinued their affiliation with the National Rifle Association (NRA) by ending discount programs for NRA members. Most notable has been Delta Airlines’ disassociation with the National Rifle Association.

On February 24, 2018, Delta tweeted, “Delta is reaching out to the NRA to let them know we will be ending their contract for discounted rates through our group travel program. We will be requesting that the NRA remove our information from their website.” A Delta spokesman, Trebor Banstetter, informed multiple news organizations that only thirteen people had booked tickets using the NRA discount for the upcoming conference.

Delta CEO, Edward Bastain, has stated “we are not taking sides” in the national debate over gun control. Delta’s decision to end discounts for NRA members who were attending the gun-rights group’s annual meeting in Dallas was intended as a showing of the company’s neutrality in the debate. Unfortunately for Atlanta-based Delta, this move to be neutral and stay outside of the gun control debate sparked conflict and animosity between the corporation and Georgia legislators.

Shortly after Delta reported their cutting ties with the NRA, Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tweeted, “I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.” On Thursday, March 1, 2018,  the state House and Senate voted to pass a broad tax bill after GOP lawmakers eliminated language that would have exempted jet fuel from sales taxes.

The question now is whether or not the state of Georgia has infringed upon a corporation’s First Amendment rights by dropping the jet-fuel tax break that Delta wanted from a recently passed tax bill—likely intended as a punishment. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission  held that corporations have First Amendment rights. Analyzing the facts of this case under Citizens United, it would appear that the state of Georgia has infringed on Delta’s First Amendment rights. Constitutional law professor Michael J. Gerhardt remarked that, “generally, the government may not punish anyone, much less a single company, for expressing itself (or trying to control the expression of its values). . .[i]f Georgia punishes the airline for expression Georgia does not like, that is a First Amendment violation.”

While it seems there is a clear First Amendment violation, whether Delta would have a strong legal case against Georgia is questionable. According to Rust v. Sullivan, the government can selectively fund programs without violating the Constitution. If the government were to threaten to take away funding they had already provided because of an organization’s viewpoint, then there would be a First Amendment violation. In the present case, Delta did not have the tax exemption to begin with, so the state is not taking something away from Delta that it already had.

Delta has not stated that they will be taking any action against the state or that they intend to move their headquarters out of Atlanta. Bastain commented that“[n]one of this changes the fact that our home is Atlanta and we are proud and honored to locate our headquarters here.”

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