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COLUMN: The other side of free speech

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By Mallory Bilger

Free speech is obviously important to me. After all, I’m a journalist. If it wasn’t for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government might be sitting over my shoulder right now telling me what to write. When that type of censorship occurs, you don’t get the truth. You get propaganda – and I have a strong distaste for media propaganda.

But sometimes the lines between free speech and personal rights get blurred. This has certainly been the case recently here in Spencer County. The same issue has also affected the nation, as the protesters of Westboro Baptist Church continue to travel from state to state, shouting the message that God is smiting United States service men and women because of our nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. It’s a message that many people wish would be silenced.

But it’s just not that simple.

Any way you look at it, taking away a person’s right to speak freely is a slippery slope. In March, the United States Supreme Court couldn’t find it in itself to allow the law to silence the Westboro protesters, ruling in favor of the church’s right to protest at funerals. They did so, I believe, because free speech is so precious, that stifling it in any case other than blatant harassment sets a dangerous precedent.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his supreme court opinion that he must uphold free speech, “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Here in Spencer County, we have seen free speech exercised in the form of statements placed on rolling billboards taken through Taylorsville streets, attacking several public officials. At the newspaper, we’ve fielded many letters to the editor, some of which raise eyebrows and feature unpopular opinions. Some readers have even gone as far as saying that we should stop running “so much negativity” in our newspaper.

But as I was reading journalist Erin Quinn’s article that was published June 14 on The Tennessean’s web site highlighting the latest Westboro incident in Nashville, I could not contain my excitement.
The story wasn’t that Westboro protesters had yet again come out to another funeral — it was just the opposite. Thousands of protesters from the other side had showed up to counteract Westboro’s message.  I thought to myself, “Finally! The other side of free speech has shown up!”

Often times readers want the newspaper only to print positive messages. But that is not reality. Life, news, and speech for that matter, are not always positive. But what excites me is when people get involved with a public issue and take a public stand on BOTH sides of the debate.

The recent heated discussions concerning the future of the Spencer County Economic Development Authority and other issues often seem to be hot-button issues, but then few people actually get involved in the public debate.

My question is, where is the other side of free speech here in Spencer County?

In Quinn’s article, Nashville’s First Amendment Center senior scholar Charles Haynes got it right when he said: “The counter-protest is a great example of freedom at work in America at its best. Instead of shutting down or censoring (the protesters) using the government, we have people who are willing to stand up and drown them out. It’s really a great illustration of how freedom of expression can work in the United States.”

We “hear” about lots of opinions on both sides of the debate, concerning the EDA and lots of other issues, for that matter. What we don’t see, quite often, is people willing to publicly take a stand against what they interpret as too much negativity. We regularly hear that there is a lot of support for one issue or another, yet we always see the same few faces show up at public meetings and hear the same voices on our telephone messages.

Don’t get me wrong. The few that do take a stand have my respect and I am pleased that they do. But let’s get more people involved in the dialogue. Our newspaper is about dialogue. What you say behind closed doors or in secrecy won’t make a big difference.  Very few people are ever going to know about it.

So make your opinion count.

Have you thought lately about voicing your opinion in a public forum, writing a letter to the editor or just taking a public stand on an issue? Here at The Magnet, we welcome letters to the editor, with the following stipulations:
• No form letters or photocopies.
• Letters must include signature, address and phone number of writer. No unsigned letters will be published.
• The Spencer Magnet reserves the right to reject or edit any letter submitted.
• Letters should focus on issues and not personalities. The Spencer Magnet does not run letters that unfairly attack a person’s character or family. Legitimate criticism of a public official’s view or stance on issues is welcome, but our opinion page cannot become a forum for personal vendettas.

Send us your letters to The Spencer Magnet, P.O. Box 219, Taylorsville, KY 40071 or email to editor@spencermagnet.com.
If you have something worth saying, then say it. Become part of the other side of free speech.

Email Mallory Bilger at reporter@spencermagnet.com.