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24 June 2017
Evening Sedition

The Freedom to Not Listen

In Russia is freedom of speech.
In America is also freedom after speech.

—Yakov Smirnoff

Highway Cleanup Courtesy of the KKK - Sign 2

Free speech is not supposed to be inoffensive. Not only that, but it is, in fact, guaranteed to be inherently offensive to someone. That is, after all, the whole point of being able to say whatever is on your mind, no matter how distasteful someone will find it. It doesn't matter if we agree with the ideas or even like them: the rights of those who espouse Nazi or KKK dogma are just as protected as those touting kittens and puppies or the truly wonderful job Bush is doing for America by liberating Iraq and exporting jobs to China.

Free speech allows the Ayn Rand foundation to condemn tsunami relief efforts using government funds (aka tax dollars) just as it allows us to label their ideas as "typical callous and cruel Randroid claptrap". (No, I am so not making this up. Read their apology if you don't believe me; they — wisely — yanked their original editoral.) Free and open discourse is an essential to freedom, no matter how repugnant we may find it at times.

That's really the whole point: we don't have to all just get along. We don't have to spout ideas that everyone likes. We don't have to say only those things that the government gives us permission to say. Communism, to use a famous example, is a truly idiotic ideology; that does not, however, give the government the right to spy on and persecute those who believe in it.

You probably were not aware that the American fascist dictator Abraham Lincoln — yes, that Lincoln — suspended freedom of the press during the Civil War, suspended habeas corpus, suspended the Constitution, and actually imprisoned those who criticized the war, either verbally or in print. People could be arrested and incarcerated for the duration of the war on mere suspicion or even rumor of advocating peace. (The Republican party truly is the party of Lincoln.) Ezra Pound spent thirteen years institutionalized because he espoused repugnant political views. Is this right? No, it isn't.

The best way to deal with abhorrent ideas is to get them out in public where the santizing light of day can illuminate them for what they are. During the Civil War, my explaining the crimes of Lincoln, for example, would have had me imprisoned or banished. (I'll be writing more about that in a few days.)

The origins of the First Ammendment can be found in the John Peter Zenger trial.

No country values free expression more highly than ours, and no case in our history stands as a greater landmark on the road to protection for freedom of the press than the trial of a German printer named John Peter Zenger. On August 5, 1735, twelve New York jurors, inspired by the eloquence of the best lawyer of the period, Andrew Hamilton, ignored the instructions of the Governor's hand-picked judges and returned a verdict of "Not Guilty" on the charge of publishing "seditious libels." The Zenger trial is a remarkable story of a divided Colony, the beginnings of a free press, and the stubborn independence of American jurors.

John Peter Zenger Trial

The case, in a nutshell, is that way back in 1731, a newspaper publisher named Zenger published an article critical of New York's governor, and the governor retaliated by having Zenger arrested for sedition and libel, and then imprisoned for ten months before trial when Zenger couldn't meet the £800 bail. (This was a truly staggering sum in those days.)

The trial opened on August 4 on the main floor of New York's City Hall with Attorney General Bradley's reading of the information filed against Zenger. Bradley told jurors that Zenger, "being a seditious person and a frequent printer and publisher of false news and seditious libels" had "wickedly and maliciously" devised to "traduce, scandalize, and vilify" Governor Cosby and his ministers. Bradley said that "Libeling has always been discouraged as a thing that tends to create differences among men, ill blood among the people, and oftentimes great bloodshed between the party libeling and the party libeled."

John Peter Zenger

Andrew Hamilton Summation

Andrew Hamilton's Summation at Trial

Nowadays this would be an open-and-shut case. But there was no First Ammendment back then. Zenger's lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, had travelled all the way from Philadelphia to represent him. (This may well be the origin of the advice, "Get yourself a Philadelphia lawyer".) Hamilton argued that the jury could only convict if what Zenger wrote was false; the judge ordered the jury to convict, saying that Zenger had no defense. Well, the jury refused to convict and the case achieved such renown that Thomas Jefferson added the right to speak one's mind to the Bill of Rights.

Andrew Hamilton: The question before the Court and you, Gentlemen of the Jury, is not of small nor private concern nor is it the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone. No, it may affect every Freeman to deny the liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth.

Alexander Hamilton
Summation,August 4th, 1735

Ok, enough with the history lesson. What bearing does this have on the news? Well, it seems that the The United States Supreme Court just declined to hear Rahn v. Robb, Case 04-629, a case important to all believers in free speech. For those of you who don't track the Supremes' docket like a Yankee fanatic tracking Billy Martin's ups and downs, this was the case involving the Ku Klux Klan wanting to adopt a section of the Missouri highway. (Can you imagine? The Ku Kluxers have hobbies other than lynching and cross-burning. Who knew?)

Now, we all know that the KKK isn't doing this out of civic mindedness, and giving back to the communty. Far from it. This is a potent propaganda opportunity to say that the KKK is still alive and well in Missouri, given that the state will put up a sign saying that litter is being picked up by them. This sign is, of course, offensive. But, then again, so is seeing signs from churches, other bigoted groups (like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts), political groups (Republicans and Democrats), and even the local funeral director. It's all bigotry, politics, advertising, or some combination thereof, and I don't like it or want to see it. But the First Ammendment says, too bad. And that's good.

The state of Missouri, like most states, encourages groups to adopt a section of highway and keep it free of litter. Everyone wins: the group gets some free, and very public advertising; the taxpayers save millions in cleanup costs; and the public gets a clean stretch of road. (So the prisoners who used to do this job don't get their dose of fresh air and exercise anymore; too bad.) Anyway, when the KKK filed papers to adopt a stretch of highway the state refused. Litigation ensued, and the 8th Circuit Court of the United States ordered Missouri to honor free speech and let the KKK have its segment of highway. While the Missouri appeal was pending, however, state officials showed they had a sense of humor: the stretch of highway was renamed the "Rosa Parks Memorial Highway". No, this is not an urban legend.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater today honored a pioneer of the civil rights movement by dedicating a one-mile section of I-55 south of downtown St. Louis, MO as the Rosa Parks Highway.

"Forty-five years ago, Mrs. Rosa Parks’quiet defiance greatly contributed to the civil rights movement, said Secretary Slater. "Today’s naming of the Rosa Parks Highway reminds individuals that transportation is about more than concrete, asphalt, and steel. It’s about people and empowering citizens to fulfill their dreams."

During the 2000 legislative session, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill, sponsored by State Senator William Clay and State Representative Russell Gunn, to name a 1.13-mile stretch of Interstate 55 from one mile south of Lindbergh Boulevard to Butler Hill Road the "Rosa Parks Highway." Former Governor Mel Carnahan signed the bill into law on May 30, 2000.

Missouri, Department of Transportion

Highway Cleanup Courtesy of the KKK - Sign 1

What's most amusing is that neither the United States Department of Transportation nor the Missouri Department of Transporation managed to mention exactly why Rosa Parks was being so "honored". (Another bit of trivia: John Ashcroft ran against Governor Mel Carnahan. When Carnahan died in a plane crash right before the election, Missouri voters elected the dead man over Ashcroft. After the dead man won, Republicans challenged the vote on the grounds that Carnahan was not, strictly speaking, a resident of the state on election day. They lost and sent Ashcroft to Washington. Guess who got the better end of that deal.)

Anyway, here's the story:

For the second time in four years, the U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for the Ku Klux Klan to participate in Missouri's Adopt-A-Highway Program.

The high court on Monday declined to hear the state's appeal of a lower court ruling siding with the Klan, meaning that picking up litter along Missouri 21 heading into Potosi can remain the responsibility of the Klan.

...

Missouri began its Adopt-A-Highway program in 1987. About 3,400 groups care for about 5,000 miles of Missouri roads, according to the MODOT Web site. The program saves the state about $1.5 million a year, the Web site said.

Such programs are popular nationally; every state but Vermont has one.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court supporting Missouri's position, the Texas solicitor general warned that states could cancel their Adopt-A-Highway programs if they are forced to allow the Klan to participate.

Kansas City Star
Courtesy of BugMeNot.com
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Password: oregon1

I think the real question here is when are Americans going to wake up and realize that individuals must make decisions about what is or is not appropriate speech for themselves and that we must defend to the death the right to offend others. To do otherwise is to create world where a committee determines what we can say or hear, and that road, my friends, leads to fascism.

Oh, I have one more real question: how do klansmen keep those white outfits so spiffily starched and free of grass and dirt stains while picking up the trash in the hot sun?

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Kansas City Star Story (Login: icantkick@mailinator.com, Password: oregon1)
  2. Snopes confirmation of "Rosa Parks Memorial Highway" story as fact
  3. Seattle Post Intelligencer
  4. John Peter Zenger

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