May 22, 2019
I am about as close to a First Amendment absolutist as they come. In my mind, the First Amendment means what it says: that Congress shall pass no law respecting the freedom of speech. It is emphatically not the government’s job to decide what is or is not appropriate speech. That was a genuinely radical idea in the 18th century and, apparently, it still ruffles feathers today.
Yes, it means that there is a boatload of speech that many people (in some cases, the vast majority of people) find repulsive and offensive. But it’s not for government to decide what can or cannot be said. Who do YOU trust to make those decisions?
I bring this up because last Saturday there was a road race in Derby, Vermont. One contestant had a tattoo on his calf that featured a white supremacist design. One runner asked the race organizers to expel the guy from the race, and a couple of others said that he was “spoiling” the race.
To his credit, the race organizer (who happens to be a former prosecutor and who is well-versed in constitutional matters) refused to banish the runner, and was quoted as saying that “Every day we are not defending free speech, we are losing it.” He went on to say “We tolerate and even invite civil discourse, debate and disagreement. And when the snow comes and one of us ends up in a ditch along the road, we don’t look at their tattoo, we stop and help them out. To me that is the Vermont Way.”