The medium wasn't the message

"Buts" destroy concept of freedom of speech

by Paul deParrie
(May 8, 1997 The Oregonian)

"I'm in favor of free speech but . . ."
These words echo from the Tories (supporters of King George of England) of the 1770s, through the pro-slavery forces against the "excessive rhetoric" of the abolitionists, all the way to the likes of [Oregon State] Rep. George Eighmey, D-Portland, today.
However, that little word "but" destroys our freedom to protest.
Back when John Adams and his crew used to demonstrate directly in front of the homes of prominent Tories and hang them in effigy, the supporters of the Crown tried to have the dissidents jailed. When Lawrence Carver of American Voter violated the taboo of Eighmey and other legislators by hanging a state official, Kay Toran, in effigy, not only did Eighmey, with impunity, violate state law when he struck Carver, we now hear that the Oregon State Police are investigating whether Carver broke the law.
I'd say they should have arrested Eighmey on the spot for his violent action (as seen on TV), which was an obvious violation of the law (ORS 166.065) against "offensive physical contact."
Things were apparently different a couple of years ago when state workers in the Oregon Public Employees Union rallied outside the Capitol in opposition to measures that would limit their pay raise. A front-page photo in The Oregonian on May 10, 1995, shows a state employee holding a photo of [Oregon State] Rep. Bob Tiernan, an OPEU enemy, with a bullseye on his head.
Tiernan had been the subject of death threats for more than a year at the time (no report of such threats against Toran has been made), yet no one uttered a peep that the OPEU protester had gone "too far." Eighmey was not out there slapping the sigh out of the hands of the state workers and denouncing their "promotion of violence."
The protection of free speech must be especially vigorous when it comes to political speech and protest. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that it is "unpopular" speech that deserves protection because protection of only acceptable speech is not free speech at all. In addition, the high court has noted that "raucous," irritating, offensive, rude, unwise speech -- even abstract calls for revolution -- are protected.
To be sure, some do not like the rough-and-tumble of political debate. For those (including, perhaps, Eighmey) I say, "Stay home. Don't watch the news or read the paper."
Where there is free speech, the "marketplace of ideas" is more like a battlefield. It is often not "civil" (the latest public appeal to the "buts").
What is particularly offensive about the actions and words of Eighmey and other legislators who joined his attempt to lynch Carver's freedom of speech is that it should come from lawmakers who swear an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and of Oregon.
At the same time, it is not surprising. It is always those in power -- General Gage, Bull Connor, George Wallace -- who use intimidation, violence, and threat of arrest when they or their buddies in power are publicly challenged. Any excuse will do in a pinch.
In this case, Eighmey and others cynically used the color of Toran's skin to bolster their "but." There was no indication that Carver objected to Toran's race -- only her policies. If Toran had been white, I suspect Eighmey would have used the fact that she was a woman.
Eighmey could have come out in opposition to Carver's ideas -- and even virulently so -- but it was inexcusable to pretend that Carver's protest was racially motivated. More, as a lawmaker (and, therefore, supposedly a law-keeper) it was especially wrong of him to start a violent shoving match over the protest.
The point is, there is always a "but." Always an excuse to squelch freedom of speech. I say excuse because these are not reasons.
"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," it is said. Remember just who the vigilance of the Founders was directed towards -- those in power.
One of the reasons for the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech was to keep the "buts" of those in power out of the political debate in this country.
If we allow government officials to confine political protest and speech to meek and civil discourse, we will have lost the ability to change government and will end up with our "buts" under a new tyranny.