Free speech trumps all

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It seems fitting to start off the new year with some "back to the basics" observations, given that year ahead — locally, statewide, nationally and internationally — would seem to offer, even at this admittedly early stage, no shortage of possibilities for discussion and controversy.

We refer to the basic question of free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and one of the basic building blocks of our democracy.

Free speech is usually paid lip service to by everybody, but the devil can happily reside in the details. Two situations have emerged in recent days that illustrate the complexities of what on its face should seem straightforward — the right of individuals and organizations to offer a point of view on a public question and defend it on its merits.

Free speech, which by its very definition, should be broadly allowable and tolerated is not, like all the other freedoms we hold dear as synonymous with what it means to live in a democratic society, absolute and infinite. There is "hateful speech," where the contest is less about ideas than personalities or factors that have nothing to do with the merits of an argument. Nor is it allowable to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, stated in an opinion back in 1919. Your desire to cause a panic at the expense of other's safety and well-being is not protected speech.

Between those extremes lies a lot of gray, as the case involving a disgruntled customer of the Northshire Bookstore's Saratoga Springs, N.Y. store, vexed about a public display of the Quran, an Islamic holy text, and the desire of the Vermont Workers Center, a left-wing activist group upset about a campaign rally scheduled for Thursday of this week at Burlington's Flynn Theater, illustrate.

We applaud the stance taken by Chris Morrow, the owner of the Northshire Bookstore, to not only refuse to remove from public display a book about Islamic beliefs, but to take to social media to defend its right to display and sell the book and point out some pretty basic stuff. As Morrow stated, if we are so insecure about our safety and well-being that we're going to be spooked by the mere sight of a sacred text that has been so sadly and misguidedly misappropriated by a crazed, fundamentalist terror group (or two, or three), then indeed, those terrorists have indeed already won the contest. Fortunately we also believe that the actions of one misguided customer doesn't reflect the character or belief-set of the nation as a whole either, disturbing as it is that even one of us would be so agitated that the mere sight of a book would be enough to prompt threats to the store and employees to "do everything he could" to put them out of business.

The surest defense of freedom is to be open and tolerable to consider differing points of view and debate those on their merits and value. When we close our minds off to different sets of values and approaches, freedom is the loser. All of us are the losers. Happily, the U.S. remains an open, tolerant society, we think, compared with many others around the globe. Perfectly so — maybe not, and from time to time, during periods of stress and pressure, we, as a society as a whole, are capable of losing sight of that. Just saying we're better on that score that a whole lot of other places — Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea come readily to mind — isn't the standard we should be measuring ourselves by. The standard lies in our willingness to allow everyone a fair say and the confidence that in the long run, openness and toleration will guide us along the right path.

A comparable situation has arisen in recent days with the intriguing visit of presidential candidate Donald Trump to Burlington, where he's scheduled to hold a campaign rally Thursday night. His campaign has rented the 1,400 seat Flynn Theater for the event. It's unusual for presidential candidates to visit Vermont at all. We're not a "battleground" state and we don't hold an early bell weather primary. This is a publicity stunt by the Trump campaign, to show they are prepared to take their message into what would seem on the surface to be inhospitable terrain. To that extent, good for them. Again, we all should keep open minds. That candidate Trump has so far distinguished himself for mind numbingly stupid remarks about immigration and restricting the entry of Moslems to the U.S. — among a long list of other issues — doesn't disqualify him from giving a speech in Burlington.

But that is what the Vermont Workers Council — largely unknown until last year when around this time they disrupted Gov. Peter Shumlin's inauguration speech at the state legislature — would like. Fortunately, other groups and individuals with axes to grind with Mr. Trump are responding more constructively, with counter-demonstrations or silent vigils. It will all be a grand show, we suspect, and one guaranteed to make it onto the evening news and go viral on social media, which of course is precisely what Mr. Trump and his campaign are hoping for. That's politics in a vibrant democracy.

Donald Trump is completely unqualified to be President of the U.S. in our opinion, but he has a right to make his case. Displaying a Quran is not hateful speech, and the disgruntled customer isn't being asked to buy it or share its values.

Presidential elections and unstable international circumstances, as we are seeing in the Middle East and in other parts of the globe, bring out both the best and worst in us. But it will all be OK, if we can take the long view and tolerate differences that don't cross the line into shouting about a non-existent fire.


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