Defending free expression

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At Monday’s City Council meeting, I endorsed a resolution that recognizes vital “community values” in Whitefish: these include celebrating the “dignity, diversity, and inclusion of all of its inhabitants and visitors” and safeguarding their “rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from discrimination.”

Though the resolution is vague and seemingly non-consequential, I concur with its spirit.

The resolution comes as a pleasant and welcome surprise.

A group calling itself Love Lives Here had talked about passing a very different kind of ordinance — one that would do the opposite of affirming the value of free expression and association.

This so-called “anti-hate” ordinance was, quite simply, an attempt by some in the community to silence and condemn those who think differently.

Of course, such a resolution never stood a chance. It would have been too obvious a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution (among other things). What’s shocking is that it was even proposed.

For me, over these past few weeks, Whitefish hasn’t felt like Whitefish — the laid-back, free-spirited community I’ve known for 10 years. Instead, it felt like something out of 17th-century Salem, Mass., or a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel.

I hesitate to make this comparison, for I haven’t suffered anything like those accused of “witchcraft” in the past. But there has been a distinct “Puritanical” quality to those who’ve attacked me — an indulgence in self-righteousness, an assertion of being on the side of the angels, while their enemies are doing the work of the devil.

I’m grateful for their change of course. And I’m also grateful that my attackers have, however unwittingly, given the community the opportunity to reflect on its most basic values.

Americans probably revere the First Amendment more than any other law. Yet, it sometimes seems that “freedom of speech” has an empty ring to it, that it’s becoming just another slogan or tagline.

True freedom of expression doesn’t mean you get to choose your favorite TV show or brand of shampoo, while rigidly adhering to state dogma or the opinion of the majority.

True freedom of expression entails the examination of the most fundamental aspects of society and human existence — the things that are most challenging, radical, provocative, and painful. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything.

Today, the greatest challenge to freedom of expression doesn’t come from some iron-clad, “totalitarian” foreign power. The real threats are more insidious and difficult to discern.

One of these is the surveillance and “national security” apparatus, an invisible government we’ve learned about through the bravery of Edward Snowden and others.

Another threat is subtler. It’s the presumption that people, or at least certain people, have a right “not” to be offended. In essence: “Freedom of speech is all well and good — unless we don’t like what you say!” This is exactly the kind of phony “inclusiveness” that would have been made law with an “anti-hate” ordinance.

Speech codes like this have, sadly, taken hold at many American universities, but my sense is that Montana will prove immune. For one thing, the men and women of the American West don’t like to be told what to think. And the West itself is too diverse and contradictory to be codified or made to conform to the whims of a pressure group.

Montana has been a place where different communities and individuals express different identities, hopes, and dreams. Let’s keep it that way.

— Richard B. Spencer, Whitefish

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