The legislation addressing illegal immigrants, which passed in Arizona on April 23, resulted in a number of groups canceling their scheduled meetings in the state, with others vowing not to meet there in the future. In the wake of the controversy, it's a good time to review the law as it might pertain to boycotts. But first, a bit of history.
The First Boycott The term "boycott" comes from Irish estate agent Capt. Charles Boycott, who in 1880 refused a request to reduce tenant rents and later evicted the tenants. Instead of resorting to violence, the villagers stopped doing business with the captain. Boycott soon had no one working for him, and even the mailman refused to deliver his mail.
In the meetings industry, boycotts have been used to protest social issues that were contrary to organizations' business, moral or political beliefs. (See M&C's timeline of meetings-related boycotts at bit.ly/dyvY3N.)
One example followed the imposition in Florida of a tax on services, which had nationwide impact. Ad agencies and other businesses that were affected by the measure began a conscious boycott of the state, which helped lead to a repeal of the tax.
On the other hand, an attempted boycott of the state of Missouri for its failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment did not achieve the desired result of the state's approval of the measure.
The Arizona Case Arizona has been subject to a boycott before, after the state's refusal in 1992 to recognize Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday (the state capitulated a year later).
The new law, SB 1070, requires state and local police to determine the immigration status of those who have been arrested or detained. While SB 1070 specifically prohibits racial or ethnic profiling, some organizations have pulled their business in protest.
Many in our industry have spoken out against boycotting in general, noting that the people most damaged by the actions are those who are the least able to survive economically, since they will be laid off or otherwise deprived of their livelihood if visitors stop coming.
Signed and Sealed If you have a contract, unless it specifically includes language that would allow your group to cancel because of Arizona's actions, your organization will be obligated to pay the cancellation fee or be in breach of contract. Similarly, if attendees decide not to show up, your organization still will be obligated for attrition costs. Of course, some might just decline to do business with their contracted suppliers, like those who refused to deal or work with Charles Boycott, but they could be sued for breach of contract.
If your organization is contemplating meeting in a state that could institute a similar statute, and you are worried attendees might want to protest, consider inserting a very specific clause in your agreements, such as: "If legislation or regulation is adopted barring _____" [alternative: "allowing _____"], on or before [date], organization shall have the right to cancel without liability upon written notice. Thereafter, there shall be no right to cancel without liability."
Organizations without such protections might opt to follow the example of CTIA–The Wireless Association. The group is protesting a new ordinance in San Francisco requiring cell phones to be labeled with the amount of radio frequency they emit. Rather than canceling this year's Enterprise and Applications show in October, CTIA has announced that the 2010 event will be its last in the city for the foreseeable future.