Whitefish City Council took a stance in support of diversity in the community while still protecting First Amendment rights to free speech Monday when it unanimously approved a non-discrimination resolution.
Councilor Frank Sweeney said the resolution demonstrates the hopes and values for the city.
“We need to remain attentive and vigilant to what might happen and who might come into our community,” he said. “No resolution, no law, can prospectively eliminate those problems.”
“Nobody here has any intention to inhibit free speech,” he added. “Diversity of ideas is a fine thing. The value of those ideas is something we all have to make up our minds about.”
The non-discrimination resolution declares the city’s intention “to take a stance in support of diversity, inclusion, free speech, and freedom of assembly for all inhabitants and visitors; and condemn ideologies, philosophies and movements that deny a quality of human rights and opportunities and challenge our constitutional freedoms granted by the United States and the state of Montana.”
Following approval of the resolution, the packed council chamber erupted in applause.
The resolution came in response to a Nov. 17 rally organized by Love Lives Here, a pro-tolerance group that is an affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network. The group asked the city to create legislation prohibiting hate organizations from doing businesses or having offices in Whitefish, and specifically pointed to Whitefish resident Richard Spencer, who is president of the white nationalist “think tank” National Policy Institute.
In a Nov. 19 column in the Pilot, Love Lives Here founder Ina Albert said the group was requesting a no-hate ordinance.
“Please help us show people like Spencer and groups like National Policy Institute that they’re not welcome here,” she wrote.
However, on Monday representatives of Love Lives Here told council they want to protect the expression of the ideas they disagree with, while also advocating for the passage of a non-discrimination resolution.
Albert said Love Lives Here appreciates the protection of human rights from discrimination by the resolution.
“We want to emphasize that Love Lives Here will not deny freedom of speech to anyone,” Albert said. “Love Lives Here stands for everybody being included in the community, even those who preach [hate] doctrine."
Spencer told council he was the target of a “witch hunt” when Love Lives Here rallied against his residency in Whitefish, but added that since then “cooler heads have prevailed.”
“I give my enthusiastic endorsement to this resolution that confirms community values and encourages diversity,” Spencer said. “It is vague, but I concur with its spirit. Real diversity includes thinking differently.”
“I will take this resolution as a good faith gesture,” he said. “I’m going to take it as a kind of apology — an assertion that people in this community who think differently will not be subjected to the mentality I have over the past few weeks.”
For the second meeting in a row, more than 100 people filled the council chambers to voice opinions on the matter. But this time the conversation was mixed — several advocated for ultimate protection of free speech, others backed away from requesting a no-hate ordinance saying they merely want to rally against hate ideals, and some applauded the creation of the non-discrimination resolution.
Joe Coco said he doesn’t support Spencer and he’s not against Love Lives Here.
“I’m an advocate for Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment,” he said. “I believe in the right of anybody to speak what they believe.”
Coco, who has a long family history of military service, said he is “embarrassed” at the thought of living in a community that would pass a law taking away free speech.
“Be careful not to pass a bad law because you’ll be required to enforce it,” he said.
Jeremy Palmer said it’s dangerous to ban one person’s ideas just because they aren’t in line with certain beliefs.
“The problem is when we start being intolerant to certain ideas — they might be wrong today, but not tomorrow,” he said.
Rabbi Allen Secher disputed the idea that Love Lives Here is advocating for a ban on free speech.
“I didn’t hear anyone say we wanted to deny the right to speak,” he said. “We have fear — not for what’s said, but for what’s done.”
Brian Muldoon said the battle remains with the citizens to push out ideas that are “corrosive.”
“The First Amendment prohibits the government from preventing speech,” he said. “It doesn’t stop me from speaking out against something I disagree with.”
“Yes, there are ideas that can’t be tolerated,” he added. “We will choose who we will and will not be neighbors with.”
The city notes the resolution isn’t intended to alter other “rights, protections, or privileges secured by state or federal law, including state and federal constitutional protections of freedom of speech, assembly, and exercise of religion.”
In a memo to council, city attorney Mary VanBuskirk said “while the city retains authority to enact laws on behalf of the health, safety and general welfare of its citizens, its authority to regulate is not absolute.”
VanBuskirk said that if the city enacts a no-hate ordinance focused only on prohibiting certain speech or expression believed to be hateful, the city would be violating First Amendment rights to free speech.
An agenda item later in the meeting, gave council the opportunity for further discussion of creating a no-hate or non-discrimination ordinance. No councilors indicated a desire to discuss the matter.