Free speech is for those we disagree with, too
A group of Iowa activists met recently to chew over an assortment of issues facing Americans. They invited me to join them and contribute my stray thoughts.
One of the participants, a kind, no-nonsense woman from Boone, was frustrated by the events in Charlottesville, Va. Her take on those protests was direct: Hate speech should not be permitted in the United States.
Her rationale was direct, too. She is Jewish, and she has no patience for those who direct their anger at Jews. Nor does she have patience for those who support white supremacy. Or those who are anti-immigrant.
I chimed in about the importance of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. But I didn’t criticize my friend from Boone. City officials in Windsor Heights, aided and abetted by their city attorneys, arrived at a rather similar conclusion to the Boone woman’s recently, this time over yard signs, of all things.
The Des Moines suburb is known as a community without sidewalks. Most neighborhoods have no walkways that parallel streets — and lots of people think that’s OK.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that a Windsor Heights City Council decision earlier this year to install sidewalks near two elementary schools has been contentious. Residents have packed City Council meetings. Some people have sounded off in letters to the editor.
And a couple of Windsor Heights families have chosen to use their First Amendment rights in a way that rankled city officials.
One family voiced its views with an 18-square-foot vinyl banner hanging from their front porch. The sign read: “No Concrete! 96 Percent Said No. Save the Green Space.”
Within a few days, while the family was on vacation, city employees sent a “Notice to Abate” to the couple, claiming the sign was a nuisance, and removed the banner.
Neighbors of the couple, upset with the city’s heavy-handed actions, covered an old political campaign sign with a new message and stuck the sign in their yard. The message on this sign: “City Hall Run Amok.”
The Windsor Heights sign police swung back into action and notified the second couple that their sign must be removed or the couple would be fined $1,000 per day.
City officials deny their actions violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As justification, they point to a city ordinance that regulates the size of signs and requires a city permit before signs can be erected.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, who represent the two couples, point out that there are plenty of political signs scattered around the city that are the same size as the second couple’s yard sign, including in the yards of the mayor and a city council member. And there are other signs in the city that are larger than the first family’s banner.
Court decisions have held communities can regulate the size and placement of signs, but cities cannot regulate the content of signs. The U.S. Supreme Court has put it this way: Regulations have to be content neutral.
If you allow “For Sale” signs in yards, you can’t keep out comparably sized “City Hall Run Amok” signs. If cities allow churches to erect signs larger than the one family’s vinyl banner, cities can’t take down “No Concrete” banners.
As for these signs in Windsor Heights, do you think for a minute city officials would have come down on these couples if their signs carried messages like “Windsor Heights, Best City in Iowa” or “We Support Our Mayor and Council”?
The robust discussion we’ve seen across the United States in recent weeks, including Windsor Heights, is one of the features that sets our nation apart from many democracies.
Our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment to ensure government did not muzzle dissent, nor the press, nor dictate what people must think. That means free speech is here for everyone — God-fearing Americans, as well as atheists, Republicans and Democrats, war veterans and pacifists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan — to express their ideas, even if many of us find some comments reprehensible.
The woman from Boone doesn’t want the air she’s breathing polluted with the views of knuckleheads like those who have been in the news lately.
I understand her concerns. I am repulsed, too, by what the Nazis and Confederates did.
But I also think one of the fundamental strengths of the United States is the right of the people to peacefully march and express their views — whether you support veterans, the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and our president, or whether you oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline, the KKK or Nazi sympathizers.
By allowing those many of us see as extremists to march and speak, we expose their ideas — as cockamamie and far-fetched as they are. That public exposure allows the rest of us to resolve to combat those views, peacefully.
This is a lesson many colleges and universities have failed to learn for far too long. You can’t arbitrarily stamp out “hate speech” or contrary views on a college campus any more than you can expect to do this in the world outside of those campuses.
Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in a 1989 decision involving flag burning, a controversial form of free speech, offered his thoughts succinctly: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Yes, we need tolerance for free expression of views — but we should not tolerate violence.
• Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and writes a weekly column for the Bloomfield Democrat. Comments: DMRevans2810@gmail.com