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The defense against offense

By Lady Liberty
web posted February 6, 2006

I've complained more than once about the government's infringement of free speech. In fairness, there's plenty there to complain about! From so-called Campaign Finance Reform to the PATRIOT Act; from domestic surveillance to free speech zones, the First Amendment is under active attack from the powers that be. But the truth is that free speech is also endangered by a far more insidious source: us.

Ask almost anybody, and support for free speech is relatively strong (though only an appalling one out five could name something other than free speech covered by the First Amendment — which may explain why only about a quarter thought public schools did a good job educating people on the First Amendment). Yet that support apparently doesn't extend any further than the person's own sensibilities go which really isn't freedom at all.

In my own town, a pro-life group erected an annual display in a city park for many years. The occasion was typically the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion in the US. The display consisted of signage condemning abortion and a number of white wooden crosses, each symbolizing a certain number of deaths.

The city received a number of complaints about the display not the least of which were those who insisted the crosses were a government endorsement of Christianity which, if that were the case, would be unconstitutional. Fearing a comparable backlash from the other side of the issue if the display was prohibited, and not wishing to ban displays carte blanche, the city crafted a new display policy in the hopes some future problems would be solved before they even came to light.

Before this year's pro life display was erected, I requested a copy of the city's policy which I promptly received. It's relatively short (not even two pages), and the language is simple and clear. In a nutshell, the city says that every display must have a permit, but that permits will be granted to anyone who requests one provided certain criteria are met.

The criteria aren't onerous. In fact, they're sensible on a variety of levels. First of all, the number of displays at any given time are limited (in other words, reserve your spot now for first come, first served status because we're not filling up the entire park with displays). Secondly, the displays can't be dangerous (that includes any materials that would pose a threat to city workers who are mowing or otherwise caring for the park). Any damage to the park can't be permanent (holes for poles must, for example, be filled when displays are removed). And there are limitations on the kinds of materials that can be used and on display size (flimsy paper would disintegrate in the rain; overlarge displays could effectively barricade walkways or even block driver views).

Now what that all means is that I could use a city park to say pretty much anything ("Celebrate freedom this 4th of July! Visit www.ladylibrty.com today!") and as along as it met the basic criteria, I'd receive my permit and could erect my display. You could do the same by following the same procedures to say whatever you'd like ("Freedom isn't good enough! Slave reparations now!") whether I agree with you, or even find what you have to say to be offensive. And that's as it should be.

Unfortunately, far too many people don't agree with you or me, and I don't mean merely our sentiments. I mean they don't agree with our unalienable right to express those sentiments! Let's visit the city park in my town once again where, right on time, a pro-life display has been erected (and yes, it's in compliance with the city's policies). I drove past the very site just yesterday afternoon, and was appalled at what I saw.

I don't refer to my own opinions on the abortion debate, but rather to the very ability of those who wish to express their own opinions on the issue to do so. The sign lamenting abortion is there; so are the white crosses. But the sign is all but illegible through the bright blue, orange, and green paint splattered all across it. I understand that the abortion debate is a contentious one. I'm aware that both sides have strong opinions. But sharing that opinion doesn't mean that the other side should be silenced. In fact, in any debate, it's imperative that neither side is silenced by force or coercion.

Most of us demand that the government treat all of us fairly no matter our beliefs or opinions. There have been lawsuits filed when the government does not do so, and I've been supportive of most of those suits. If schools rent (or allow the use of) facilities to groups, then no group should be excluded including those of a religious nature. If towns erect Christmas displays, then Hanukah, Solstice, and Kwanzaa displays should also be permitted. But what happens when it's citizens that work to ensure unfairness?

In Florida, there have been a number of news-making altercations over holiday display policies. Some groups oppose the erection of Nativity scenes while others are upset Nativity scenes aren't allowed. Lawsuits have been one and lost; settlements have been made. In fairness, some local government entities have done their best to offer equal access to all viewpoints. But that hasn't always worked so well, either.

In one Florida County, some complained when a manger scene was erected on government property. Authorities answered the complaints by establishing a "free speech zone" which included the infamous manger scene, and which ended up also displaying a sign reading "Jesus isn't coming." The sign was repeatedly vandalized, and officials eventually determined to revoke the designated free speech zone all together. That didn't happen because of complaints or the threat of a lawsuit. It happened because some people apparently weren't mature enough or secure enough in their own beliefs to allow others to express their contradictory opinions.

Something like that could conceivably happen where I live, too. Vandalism isn't a pretty crime and all too often it tends to spread. And it's far, far too common (I did a Google search for "display vandalized" and got over 175,000 hits). But what's even less attractive is the all too effective censorship of free speech in America not by one out of control government entity or another, but by Americans who apparently support free speech only if it happens to be speech with which they personally agree.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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