A free-speech case of ‘monumental’ size

In Opinion
Courtesy of MCT

The idea of freedom of speech is just that in many places, an idea. Not an actuality, or a promise; it’s more like a notion.

Private property, schools, workplaces, churches, restaurants and many other facilities have certain codes of conduct. There is often a dress code or uniform and an expected amount of etiquette. Though there is rarely a sign or pamphlet advertising these things, people know that there are ways to carry oneself, and a refusal is met with expulsion.

The idea of restricting free speech in these areas is to ensure the safety and freedoms guaranteed to every citizen, and is a constant controversy for traditionalists and progressives.

The grey area of restricting free speech isn’t new, but the anti-American twist sure is.

I am referring directly to strict guidelines issued by California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) which state that no flags, or any sort of political messages, should be seen on the state’s streets.

In one town north of Santa Barbara, citizens are appalled by Caltrans denying a $60,000 monument sponsored by the American Legion, all because it would feature an American flag.

The veteran group intended for a pole bearing the flag to be accompanied by five pillars representing the branches of the military, with inscriptions including “United States,” another violation of Caltrans law.

Many look to Caltrans with shock and dismay.

Yet, the double-edged sword has shown its true potential now. When Caltrans lost a federal suit in 2003 for targeting specific anti-American groups, they implemented new blanket restrictions on expression. Rather than target groups, now no group can display flags or banners on Caltrans property.

One cannot simply pick and choose what to restrict and what not to. In the eyes of the law, it must be just and equal. Because of the Fourth Amendment, each individual is guaranteed the same protections and freedoms. When Caltrans wanted to make a statement that there could be no anti-war protesting on Caltrans owned land, they had to equally restrict anything seen as representing war or otherwise equally allow it.

If they wanted to avoid cultures clashing by banning flags, that had to include the American flag.

The 2003 lawsuit that Caltrans faced was not from the community, but rather federal courts. When Caltrans ordered for the removal of only anti-war banners, it unconstitutionally targeted and restricted the expression of individual groups.

The ruling was clear: Freedom of expression is an all-or-nothing scenario. If Caltrans ignored this law, and allowed some messages but not others, it would really be taking away the voice of the minority.

Whether one side is more right isn’t the issue. We just all have the same right to express it, whether it’s seen as correct or not.

If only one side of everything was ever allowed to be expressed, the spectrum of viewpoints would diminish. Without the need  to defend a claim, they would never get stronger—our understanding would never get deeper. The things people hear and see that they consider wrong also reinforce what they consider right.

Caltrans has the right to restrict controversial matters, but the law requires them to restrict everything equal from every angle.

When restricting freedom of speech is being brought up on the topic of extinguishing hate groups, terrorism and anarchy, the majority support is there. Articles about people dressing as angels to keep the Westboro Church out of funerals and schools shutting their doors due to threats of racial unrest get most communities on the side of restricting hate speech.

But when restricting freedom of speech is being brought up about religion and pride, the majority gets defensive. Coverage of taking “one nation under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance or the removal of an American flag causes a distinct divide, panic and outrage. The fight between tradition and progression in America will never go away, and that’s a good thing.

Along with multiple viewpoints, we get to keep democratic ideals.

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