Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Someone Else’s Free Speech Rights Matter to Me

Yesterday, the Wyoming Supreme Court handed down an opinion finding that the city of Jackson suppressed the free speech rights of Operation Save America (OSA), a conservative pro-life group that protested last year during Elkfest, an annual event in Jackson celebrating nature, hunting, outdoor skills and ecological education and awareness. The Jackson Hole News & Guide reports that the group plans to protest again during this year’s Elkfest. OSA’s “word in warfare” protest will specifically target a clinic in Jackson that is considered to be Wyoming’s only abortion provider. The group plans to read the bible from beginning to end outside of the clinic during the upcoming protest.

Last year’s visit to the Jackson community by the OSA protesters was not well received by many community members. OSA protesters used large signs containing graphic images of aborted fetuses for their shock value, with the stated purpose of attempting to sway public opinion to their side in the abortion debate. Many Jacksonites expressed indignation that OSA had scheduled their demonstrations at the same time as the Boy Scouts of America were holding their annual antler auction at Elkfest. Approximately 200 boys, ages seven to fourteen, attended the Boy Scouts event and were exposed to the protesters’ graphic posters.

The town of Jackson filed for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to bar the group from Town Square, citing public safety concerns and worries about exposing the Boy Scouts to the vivid photographs used by the demonstrators. A Wyoming District Court granted a TRO, but this week the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling because it infringed upon the free speech rights of OSA. The high court held that the TRO imposes content-based restrictions in a traditional public forum, and upheld core First Amendment principles designed to protect even the most unpopular speech on matters of public concern.

Last week, the state of Wyoming settled a free speech case filed in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming by the Wyoming-based conservative Christian anti-choice group, WyWatch. After receiving authorization to set up a booth in the Herschler Gallery of the capitol building, WyWatch’s display was removed based on several complaints about the offensive nature of the images. To be sure, WyWatch’s display was consistent with the building’s guidelines, and included a poster of a fetus with a biblical verse, but was certainly not of the same graphic nature of OSA’s pickets. The state censored the display based on content; censorship that infringed upon WyWatch’s constitutional right to free speech. The ACLU of Wyoming filed an amicus brief in support of WyWatch’s claim that the removal of the display was unreasonable and obstructed the group’s First Amendment rights.

It’s important to note that the ACLU does not agree with the anti-choice message of groups like WyWatch or OSA, but we firmly support their right to share them. This is a critical distinction to make; one that is very important to me personally. When I first saw the striking images used by groups like OSA, I was shocked, then outraged. I was infuriated that groups were choosing to use this type of imagery to advance their message. I thought about conversations that took place around dinner tables in Jackson after the OSA protests last year, where parents were forced to explain why their children were subjected to these offensive images outside their middle school.

Then I remembered a statement I heard long ago; one that’s relevance I had not fully understood until I began working for the ACLU. If we don’t believe in the freedom of expression for those with whom we disagree, we don’t believe in the freedom of expression at all. I challenge all readers to sit back for a moment and ponder the true meaning of this statement.

The principles of the First Amendment grant all Americans, regardless of their views, the right to express themselves. Throughout its history, the ACLU has defended the free speech rights of many types of groups, from WyWatch, to the Westboro Baptist Church, to the KKK. We defend these groups not because we agree with their messages; in fact, we find them to be reprehensible. We represent them because we believe in the principle of free speech, and because once you chip away at one person’s rights, everyone’s rights are at risk.

It is for these reasons that both the Wyoming Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court of Wyoming made the right decision in each of these cases. The First Amendment ensures that the government cannot suppress free speech, no matter how distasteful the speech may be. When the government restricts speech, the government bears the burden of proving the constitutionality of its actions. Clearly, they were unable to do so in either case here.

While the ACLU is unapologetically pro-choice, we believe so strongly in the principle of the freedom of expression that we will continue to defend the rights of all Americans, even for those with whom we disagree.

Ryan Frost
Program Coordinator
ACLU of Wyoming