April 10, 2008 5:11PM

Victory for “Laissez Faire”

I just talked to Brad Stevens, who runs the customized card programs and much else at Starbucks, about how the company came to reject customers’ request for customized cards featuring the call to arms “Laissez Faire.” In my Wall Street Journal article on Monday, I noted that customers had had requests for “Laissez Faire” rejected, while “People Not Profits” and “Si Se Puede” were approved. I wondered “just what the company’s standards were. If ‘laissez‐​faire’ is unacceptably political, how could the socialist slogan ‘people not profits’ be acceptable?”

Stevens assures me that the company has no intention of approving or rejecting personal messages on the basis of ideology. Only a very small number of requests are rejected by the review team at the contractor who actually fulfills the orders, mostly because they are obscene, are insulting to the company or to a specific person, infringe on trademarks, are overtly political, or in some other way associate the Starbucks brand with images the company doesn’t want. Thus, for instance, they have rejected such messages as “Democrats Suck, Republicans Blow,” “Vote Democratic for a Change,” “Impeach Bush, Vote Hillary,” and “I Love GWBush and Cheney.” They also, according to their records, rejected “Fair Trade,” odd since the company boasts that it is “North America’s largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee.” It may be a sensitive term, though, since “fair trade” campaigners continue to criticize the company.

Stevens says the rejection of “Laissez Faire” was just an unintended outcome of the instructions that the company gave its supplier. And indeed, Jonathan Adler reports today on the Volokh Conspiracy that a VC reader inspired by my op‐​ed has received his Starbucks Customized Card proudly carrying the message “Laissez Faire.”

And by the way, just in case anybody is confused, of course I think a company has the right to set any rules it wants to for its customized cards. If a company wants to allow “Obama for President” and reject “McCain for President,” it has every right to do so. That’s what laissez‐​faire means! But customers annoyed by the policy have a right to expose it, complain about it, or take their business elsewhere.

In this case the market worked, “Laissez Faire” cards are fully acceptable, and my Starbucks‐​addicted colleagues can breathe easy again.