Terry McLaughlin: Free speech for all?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Thus reads the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. And we have certainly seen evidence of our citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble, rally and speak in the past few months.
As a defender of free speech, I was astounded to read that two young student activists were arrested on Aug. 1 for writing “Black Preborn Lives Matter” in chalk on a sidewalk in front of a Planned Parenthood facility in the District of Columbia. My first thought was that this could not possibly be true, and was just another example of faulty and inflammatory information traveling the internet, but a few clicks of the keyboard revealed numerous accounts of the event, as well as videos which confirmed that these two students had, indeed, been arrested and cited for “defacing public/private property.”
As you surely know, the words “Black Lives Matter” were painted on a public street near the White House in large yellow letters with the approval and support of District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser. Protesters then added, on their own and in permanent paint, the message “Defund The Police.” A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department indicated that MPD issues permits to assemble, but that “any markings on streets would have to be permitted by the DC Department of Transportation.” On June 7, the District Department of Public Works publicly reported that the “surprise message painted by activists next to DC’s massive Black Lives Matter mural will not be removed.”
In a lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch against Mayor Bowser and District officials, Judicial Watch attorneys found that “no process or procedures exist to request a permit to paint an expressive message on the surface of a District Street” and they were unable to find records of any permit issued to paint either of the messages currently displayed.
Planning to exercise their own right to free speech at an event scheduled for Aug. 1, the student group sent a letter in advance to Mayor Bowser noting “Having opened the streets of your city for public expression, Students for Life of America requests the opportunity to add our voices to those concerned about how people of color are treated in America. Black lives do matter, born and preborn, as too many people are lost in America today from causes that should be addressed and prevented for their disproportionate impact on minority communities … Your original decision to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the street is government speech. However, your decision to allow protestors to paint “Defund the Police” opened the streets up as a public forum. You are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint in making determinations relating to public assemblies.”
Students for Life America met with the Metropolitan Police and obtained a permit for their Aug. 1 event in advance. They were told by the MPD that the Mayor had “opened a Pandora’s box by painting public streets,” and that they would not be prohibited from doing the same. They were even told by MPD exactly what type of paint to purchase — non-permanent tempera paint.
But when they arrived on Saturday morning with their permit for a peaceful assembly in hand, properly wearing masks, and with the type of paint prescribed by the MPD, six police cars were waiting for them. They were told that if they painted the street they would be arrested, so instead they began writing their anti-violence message “Black Unborn Lives Matter” in chalk on the sidewalk, as they have done peacefully almost every Saturday in front of the Planned Parenthood mega center in D.C. It was then that Warner DePriest and Erica Caporaletti were arrested on the scene for “defacing public/private property.”
Just two days before these students were arrested, I had returned from our nation’s capital, where in the past two months a church has been burned, statues and monuments have been defaced and vandalized, public parks have been overtaken by protestors, police and federal law enforcement officials have been physically attacked, and streets, sidewalks, and buildings have been painted and chalked with messages, and I am baffled as to how two students writing a nonviolent message in washable chalk on a sidewalk on a Saturday morning could be the citizens who warranted a response from six police vehicles and an arrest for “defacing public/private property”.
Regardless of our personal feelings or opinions on the issues, whether it be Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Black Preborn Lives Matter, Defund the Police, Support the Police, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, or any other message, we should all be concerned about the impact that this type of discrimination and curtailing of free speech will have on each and every one of us.
We cannot allow this freedom to be surrendered or abandoned in the name of political correctness. Either we support free speech for all, or we forever relinquish it for ourselves.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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