The News Editorial: A lesson in free speech
March 11, 2021
Last Tuesday night the Worland City Council got a small course in free speech and what is considered protected and not protected speech.
In an era where people are offended by nearly everything the First Amendment is more important now than ever before. It comes under attack from all sides and all avenues – whether free speech, free press or freedom of religion.
As has been written in this space time and again, there is a reason that these freedoms are listed first — first and foremost — these freedoms are key to our democracy.
Part of that freedom, whether speech, religion or press, is the freedom to be offended, enlightened, encouraged, challenged by each one.
But that freedom means freedom for everyone. It means you cannot prevent someone from exercising their freedoms, even if it may offend you.
The issue before the city council Tuesday, March 2 was that a flag at a residence (or perhaps more than one) was offending people and they were calling the mayor and police demanding action. The problem is the message on the flag, as explained by City Attorney Kent Richins, did not rise to the level of unprotected speech.
He said protected speech and unprotected speech have been defined in several Supreme Court cases and words which invite dispute or cause unrest are protected speech, even if they offend.
The problem is if the police issue a citation or make someone remove a message, because it offends you, remember that something you may say or write may offend another and you could be asked to remove it and then before long the First Amendment is in jeopardy.
People may be offended by words on the aforementioned sign or flag (and I am only guessing it was political in nature), but other people can be offended by other words.
There is a sign that was put up on private property shortly after the pandemic began quoting Joshua 1:9 – Be Strong and Courageous. Now here in Worland that probably does not offend anyone, but suppose it did, should that private property owner have to remove the sign on his own property because it offends? No, and neither should the person flying the “offensive” flag that was called in question to the council.
But this is not the first time a council has been called to try and remove offensive material. Years ago when I lived in Lovell the first fake bull balls were seen hanging from the bumper of a pickup truck. Members of the public complained to the police and council asking that the owner of the truck remove it because of the same argument “kids should not have to see it.” The council at that time could not do anything then because it was on private property and protected under the First Amendment.
Now I know what you are thinking – confederate flags are being taken down, statues removed because they offend. They are not being forced, the owners of the flags and statues in most cases (except during the riots) are making that choice.
And, whether you want to believe it or not the same is true of the six Dr. Seuss books that will no longer be published. It was a decision of the Dr. Seuss family to remove these from future production, but no one is confiscating these books from your home, no one is telling you that you can’t purchase one if you find it or that you can’t own it. No one is seeking their removal from your children’s own library.
We live in a world where things are going to offend us, but the reason we live in America, the reason we fight for our freedoms is that we have that freedom to do or say things that may offend others.
Just remember the First Amendment does not give you cart Blanche to say anything. There is unprotected speech, such as yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire. And, as Richins explained last week, fighting words are not protected if those fighting words are personal attacks or produce a clear and present danger.
So while you may be offended by flags or signs on private property, or even by this written word, be thankful that you live in a country where this newspaper is still free to print what we want, not what the government tells us, that we are free to think for ourselves and free to have differing opinions and free to share those opinions.
The First Amendment written three centuries ago had no idea what the 21st century would bring and how offended by everything people would become, but it appears it was written just for us right now.
Let us use it, protect it but not abuse it.