A group of House Republicans took to social media last week to attack the outdoor goods retailer Patagonia in what amounted to a public rebuke for the company’s decision to speak out against President Donald Trump’s policies.
The rebuke, from a congressional committee’s official Twitter and email accounts, triggered complaints that the elected officials were improperly using government resources to squelch free speech.
The attacks came in response to Patagonia’s decision to sue the president over his decision to withdraw the protected status of some 2 million acres of land that make up national monuments in Utah. Before filing the suit, the environmentally-conscious retailer took to the web to voice its dismay: “The president stole your land,” Patagonia said in large letters on its website and on Twitter. “This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history.”
The House Natural Resources Committee was quick to respond: “Patagonia is lying to you,” the Republican-led committee tweeted on its official account last week. It also accused the company of speaking out in an attempt “to sell more products to wealthy elitist urban dwellers from New York to San Francisco.” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke retweeted the committee’s post.
The committee led by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, also sent out an email to a list of subscribers. “Patagonia: Don’t buy it,” the subject said.
“We’re not urging a boycott of Patagonia,” said Parish Braden, a spokesman for the committee. “Instead we’re calling on Patagonia to stop selling a false narrative and to refrain from distributing misleading statements.”
Ethics experts and lawyers, though, said the tweets and email appeared to walk a fine line.
“There’s a principle in government ethics that it’s improper to use public office for private gain,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “This appears to be the flip side of that: Officials using government resources to condemn a company.”
Walter Schaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, also weighed in on Twitter. “The federal govt officially and publicly calling a company a liar for political reasons is a bizarre and dangerous departure from civic norms,” he tweeted Friday. “It’s also decidedly anti-free market.”
A spokeswoman for Patagonia called the committee’s tweet “obviously inappropriate” but said the company would “stay focused on protecting our national monuments.”
“This is not about marketing,” said Corley Kenna, a spokeswoman for Patagonia. “This is about defending our core values.”
In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Washington, the company alleges that the president does not have the legal authority to scale back public lands created by his predecessors. The company also said the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah would keep its employees, customers and sponsored athletes from using the public land “for various purposes, including . . . product testing, marketing, professional training, fitness, education, recreation, spiritual and aesthetic enjoyment, and other purposes.”
“Patagonia has a long history in the Bears Ears area because it provides some of the best rock climbing in North America,” the lawsuit says. “Patagonia will suffer direct and immediate injury from the revocation of the designation of the landmarks, structures, and objects of the Bears Ears National Monument.”Trump has taken to Twitter a number of times to speak out against retailers and other companies, including Amazon.com, Macy’s and General Motors. He has also called for boycotts of CNN and the National Football League. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” he tweeted in February after the department store chain announced it would stop carrying Ivanka Trump-branded clothing and shoes because of low sales. “She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”