Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is free speech just for the rich?

Last Saturday, MRM associate Randy Sweet and I decided to head to Provo—home of the LDS Church-owned BYU Cougar football team—to hand out our Brigham Young million dollar bill tracts before the game on Saturday, October 23. Wouldn’t you know it! For two of the three hours that we handed out the tracts, it poured cats and dogs! Randy and I decided to tough it out anyway and had the ability to distribute hundreds of tracts to many of the 50,000+ spectators.

A security guard forced us to move from the public sidewalk we were standing on near a main gate, saying that while it was a public sidewalk, the church had a permit to control the street and sidewalk on Cougar game days. Thus, we went down the street to a corner to hand out our tracts. Across the street was a Republican “Mike Lee for U.S. Senate” campaign bus along with about fifty hearty supporters, all of them waving signs and generating honks from the passing cars. Several ladies holding campaign signs were standing at corner, so we ended up getting into a quick conversation. Telling one lady with a stroller that I was new to the state and didn’t know very much about Utah politics, I could see her wheels spinning as she obviously viewed me as a potential voter, just ripe for the picking.

“Would you like to go over there and meet Mr. Lee?” she asked after I asked several questions about the future senator’s positions on the issues. I agreed, and so in a rain that became steadier, she introduced me to the 39-year-old lawyer—a man once serving as a clerk for Supreme Justice Samuel Alito—who owned a double digit lead heading into the Nov. 2 election. I ended up having an uninterrupted fifteen minutes with this very faithful Mormon and the son of former BYU president Rex Lee. Why, I even shook the hand of one of his beautiful daughters!

The candidate was very cordial and appeared happy to talk—anything to break the monotony of waving at passing cars, I’m sure. I began by asking him about abortion (he’s Pro-Life except in cases of rape/incest, life of mother, and detrimental health of the infant).  We dialogued on that topic for a few minutes before I asked him the question I really wanted answered: “Do you believe in free speech?”

It seems like such an easy one. It was a softball, placed gently on a tee for him to hit out of the ballpark. After all, show me a politician who would answer “no” and I’ll show you a loser in the next election! As expected, he replied, “Absolutely, I’m a constitutional lawyer, and I will fight for this right to the very end.” I brought up the recent debacle involving liberal political commentator Juan Williams and how he had publicly said some things on the air about Muslims that the NPR leadership didn’t like, resulting in his firing. (Interesting, FOX News hired him immediately after this, giving him a $2 million contract!) Mr. Lee had not been following the news (“I’ve been busy getting ready for the election,” he said), so I spent several minutes providing him details.  

“Yes, they (NPR) shouldn’t have fired him,” he concluded. With this, I proceeded to explain the situation that is currently taking place in Manti, Utah.  To catch everyone up, the Mormon Church is attempting to purchase a public street that runs in front of the temple by offering the city approximately $110,000. The church has not shown any real dire need to own this street, though everyone knows that such a purchase will result in having anyone who disagrees with the church banned from the street. For two weeks in June every year, hundreds of Christians come to Manti to share their faith with the tens of thousands of pageant-goers at the Mormon Miracle Pageant. Most of the dialogues take place on this very street. Once the church gets the title deed, they can tell anyone—protestors, Christians, communists, Utah Ute fans—to “please remove yourself from our street.”

At first, Mr. Lee made it sound like he really didn’t know or even understand the situation. Then, after I explained some more, he became very hard-nosed. “As long as it’s done legally, anybody should be allowed to purchase anything he wants,” he explained. My response:  “But if quenching free speech is the main reason an organization wants to purchase a public street, would you still be in favor?” “Absolutely,” he responded.
If Christians wanted a political ally in this fight, Mr. Lee is not the man. Immediately I thought of the next question. “What would you say if the LDS Church decided to buy the four blocks immediately around its Salt Lake City temple and the conference center, with the main purpose to disallow free speech, especially during the two general conferences that take place each year?” After all, since many who are in opposition to Mormonism use these public sidewalks, perhaps a strategy would be to buy the streets and sidewalks (just as the church purchased an adjacent street in 2000 to create Main Street Plaza) in order to move the “protestors” and other undesirables away from the LDS buildings. His answer was predictable: “As long as it was legally done, I see no problem with that.”

I do, Mr. Lee. Free speech is not just for those who have lots of disposable assets and can purchase public streets in order to stifle opposing viewpoints.  If the LDS Church cannot show a real need to purchase a public street, allowing such a purchase is morally and ethically wrong. Putting a clamp on free speech by using such a maneuver is something that I might expect to happen in a Communist country, not America. Legality is not the issue.

Mr. Lee, with a double-digit lead according to the polls, you will win. As a freshman senator, I pray you will remember that you have been elected to serve the people of Utah as our representative to uphold the Constitution, including the First Amendment. Don’t allow your LDS rose-colored glasses to taint your decisions.

As we parted ways on Saturday, you promised that you would allow me to communicate with you through email and you would respond. You repeated my full name and said you wouldn’t forget our conversation. Please know that I will hold you to your promise.  

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Juan Williams was not fired because NPR doesn't care about free speech. He was fired because, as a journalist, he is not supposed to express his political beliefs. Journalism 101. It tarnishes the objectiveness of the journalist and the station. Fox News hired Williams as a commentator on Bill O'Reilly, an OPINION show. In his new role, expressing his opinion is part of his job. In his old job, remaining objective was.
Whether or not his comments are racist is a whole other topic.
Also, if a Christian church or school wanted to kick a Mormon out of their property they have the right to. They can buy whatever property they want. I'm sure you would not have a problem with that scenario.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Eric Johnson said...

Several problems with your rationale, Anonymous. (Why are people insisting to be anonymous on my blog?) First, NPR is notoriously liberal. Their slant is consistently to the left. When Williams says something that CARE gets all up in arms about, the powers-to-be cave in and fire him. Williams was always showing his liberal side on the show; come on, did you ever listen?

Second, of course people have a right to "kick" others off their property. That wasn't my point at all. Instead, I was saying that it is ethically wrong for a city to sell a public street when the entity purchasing that street wants it mainly to quench free speech. Legal, yes, I agree, cities have done this in the past; even Salt Lake City did this a while back when it sold the plaza. But ethically, if you believe in free speech--as the senator-elect said he believed in--then he should be against having the rich use their resources to purchase something they merely want so they can kick people off "their" property. So, you missed the point completely.

9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contrary to your snarky comments, I did not "completely miss your point". I understand completely what you are trying to say. My point is, your argument is irrelevant. The constitution protects our right to free speech but it also protects our right to private property. As anyone who has taken a basic law course knows, the courts balance these protections against each other, so that a person has the right to free speech, but cannot do so while trespassing on private property. I understand you may feel it unfair if churches buy up land to keep you off their property, but it is just as important right under our government as our right to free speech. It must be protected as well.
This leads us to your point that its unfair that the "rich" can keep you off their property by buying up land. Sorry? Is this the first time you have ever felt disadvantaged by your social class? That's life, but this doesn't mean free speech is "only" for the rich. You are free to wave signs and yell hellfire and damnation at as many mormons as you please on public property. In fact, writing this blog itself is an exercise of your free speech.
As for the Juan Williams thing, if you had done any research you would know NPR had warned Williams multiple times for espousing his opinions as a LIBERAL commentator on Fox News, and just demoted him a year ago because of it. He just could not remain objective, a journalistic quality you praise in other blog posts. Don't claim to be a journalist when you can't even understand this basic idea. And no, two years on a sports paper and decades of teaching newspaper at high school does not qualify you as such.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Eric Johnson said...

First of all, the Constitution (respect for our nation necessitates a capital C with this word) certainly protects our right to both free speech as well as private property, which Mr. Lee made a big point of making in our short conversation. (This post sounds very similar to Mr. Lee's arguments; twice or thrice he mentioned in our conversation that he was a Constitutional lawyer, almost as if this made his opinion better than mine.) I have no argument that a person can use Free Speech any way he or she wants on public property, as you mention. There's no argument there! (So why bring it up?) The question is, ethically, should a city's government, which has been elected to serve all the people and not just special interests, sell a property merely to quench Free Speech? I find it interesting that, as far as I know, the city has never advertised that the street was for sale. If it's for sale, it should be offered to everyone. Have the mayor or city council of the city ever considered that the street might be worth more than $110,000? If the main purpose for selling it is (from the city's perspective) is to save money in not taking care of the street as well as raising revenue, get the most you can out of the transaction, regardless of who wants to buy it. Since this was owned by the taxpayers, there is a public interest here. Not everyone wants the church to buy this property. This is why the ACLU has taken the case, based on the complaints of a number of people who live in Sanpete County.

And finally, I wonder, would the city be as willing to sell if the organization wanting to purchase the property was, say, CARE, or an "anti-Mormon" organization? Imagine the possible consequences of selling to such a group! Yet the city needs to take care of its interests over and above the church's interests. Just because the mayor is LDS doesn't mean an inferior bid should be accepted.

Regarding Williams, his firing by NPR came immediately after he made a comment that wasn't a (liberal) political comment. So all the warnings in the world did no good. He gave a personal comment about how, in the back of his mind, he was personally concerned when he saw a Muslim-looking man board his plane. Come on, you do too, admit it! Yet how does this have anything to do with Fox? Please be clearer in your logic.

One last thing. You talk about my "snarky" comments--hey, you're writing on my blog, so you're in my kingdom--but what about your snarkiness? Ahh, so apparently I have no ability to talk about journalism (despite a four-year degree in the topic and two decades working in the industry) because you feel that my qualifications are apparently minimial. Well, what is your qualification for speaking on the topic of media? What is your qualification when it comes to the law? Oh wait, (warning, snarky comment just ahead) you have decided to cowardly come on as "Anonymous" (which I have allowed) to hide your identity. If you want to continue this dialogue, you'll have to post telling us a) who you are; b) what is your expert qualification(s). This could be Mike Lee writing, for all I know, and he could come back, saying, "Well, I'm a Constitutional lawyer, so I'm the expert." Ahh, true, such a person is better prepared to talk about the law than I. But just because you have credentials doesn't mean you can walk into a courtroom, tell the judge and jury that you're right because of your impressive background and victory in the last election, and sit down because the judge adjourns, declaring you the victor. No, even Mr. Lee would have to come and present his case. In the same way, let's be professional and deal with the issue. If you're right, your arguments will show themselves as such. For me, your reasoning lacks logic.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Eric Johnson said...

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8:26 AM  
Blogger Eric Johnson said...

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8:26 AM  

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