So far this year, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana have passed restrictive new abortion laws. While none of these measures has yet gone into effect, they have created a media firestorm, with pro-choice groups, corporations and others calling for a boycott of those states.
At press time, the Society of Gynecologic Oncology had canceled a September meeting scheduled to be held in Birmingham, Ala., and hundreds of members of the American Bar Association were urging their organization to skip Atlanta as a possible host for its 2021 midyear convention.
Of course, in the case of contracted meetings, there are legal ramifications to canceling. To find out more, Northstar spoke with Jonathan Howe, president and senior founding partner of Chicago-based Howe & Hutton, and Steve Rudner, founder and managing partner of the Dallas-based Rudner Law Offices. (And be sure to read our Q&A with Destinations International's Jack Johnson offering additional reasons that planners might want to consider alternatives to boycotting a destination.)
What legal recourse does a group have if they want to cancel an event due to an anti-abortion law?
HOWE: In the past, some venues have been very sticky about groups canceling a contract as a means of protest. Their attitude is, we have made a commitment to you, and you have made one to us, and we expect you to honor that commitment. But let's say you have a "political correctness" clause in your contract that says you can revisit the agreement if the state passes a law contrary to your beliefs and politics — that might offer you some protection, provided the venue agrees to it. You cannot, however, invoke a force majeure clause for your political or religious views, because nothing has happened to interfere with your ability to hold the meeting.
RUDNER: Hotels have no control over the actions of legislatures or city councils of the states in which they are located. As a result, hotel contracts cannot be contingent upon the passage, or failure to pass, any kind of law. If a group is concerned that a state might pass a law that might make the group not want to meet in that state, the way for the group to protect itself is to wait until its meeting date becomes imminent before they sign the contract with the hotel, so that the group can feel comfortable about what laws have or have not been passed.
Can a group cancel an event based on moral grounds?
HOWE: The only grounds a group can use on beliefs in the case of abortion laws is if they were a group like Planned Parenthood, for instance. They could have a clause in their contract that says if your state passes a law that affects women's reproductive rights, we have the right to cancel. The bottom line is if you want to get out of a commitment, put something in your contract that protects you. If I am a hotel, however, I am going to expect you to be very specific on exactly what issue that is.
For a group to cancel a meeting because of its political, religious or social beliefs, and expect the hotel to sustain damage resulting from that cancellation, is really neither brave nor principled.
Steve Rudner, Rudner Law Offices
RUDNER: Our wonderful democracy allows groups to take principled stands. Of course, the next question is, "Who should pay for the brave stand the group is taking?" The answer is, of course, the group. For a group to cancel a meeting because of its political, religious or social beliefs, and expect the hotel to sustain damage resulting from that cancellation, is really neither brave nor principled.
Boycotts of states with unpopular laws are not new. Does this new spate of protests stand out for any reason?
HOWE: I think these abortion laws are a bigger boycott issue because of the sheer number of states involved and the fact that the laws vary from one state to another. It will be interesting from the standpoint of what pressure will be brought to bear, because the laws will have to pass constitutional muster. And, needless to say, the very minute any of them passes, you can bet that lawsuits will immediately be filed against them from every direction.
RUDNER: We have dealt with these boycott situations going back as far as the late 1980s, when groups canceled meetings in Arizona because the state's governor refused to allow a Martin Luther King holiday, and as recently as 2016, when North Carolina passed its anti-LGBTQ legislation. The outcome of that legislation was inevitable. Hotels collected the damages owed per the contract. If a group wants to lock in a block of rooms, a rate and function space, then the group must take the risk that a law not to its liking might be enacted.