THE BUZZ: Frankly Speaking

By on October 27, 2015

Are intolerance and intimidation eroding First Amendment rights?

151028BuzzJackson, WY – Mary Grossman was a natural fit for the classroom when administrators at the Jackson Hole Community School decided to cover freedom of expression for Free Speech Week (Oct. 19-25). Grossman taught the weeklong course as part of the school’s International Issues class. The week wrapped up with an Instagram photo contest won by Kristina French and Elizabeth Perry for their shot that captured the essence of free speech in Jackson Hole.

Grossman, who launched Planet Jackson Hole with her husband Judd, said she was generally impressed with how well the teenage students seemed to fully grasp the significance of freedom of expression enjoyed in this country as compared to more oppressed nations. It’s the adults in this community she has had issues with in her past as a publisher of an alternative newspaper.

“After 20 years of publishing, the main thing I learned, unfortunately, was that most people don’t understand or appreciate the concept of freedom of expression,” Grossman said. “Many locals are very comfortable with censorship. They even demand it. I saw educated, intelligent, freethinking people in Jackson who were so incredibly comfortable with shutting [Planet JH] up. People who I know that, if left in charge of a small country, would become fascist dictators. And they don’t even see it.”

Grossman and others are growing frustrated with the paradoxical conceptualization of expressive freedom, especially in America. The Freedom of Information Age ushered in by the explosion of social media connectedness via the Internet has allowed for the sharing of opinions and viewpoints like never before in history. And Americans have never had to be more cautious about stating their opinion as they do today. The right to speak one’s mind is regularly trumped by anyone’s adopted right to not have to hear it.

“Free speech isn’t just about being able to express yourself freely, it’s also about tolerating and upholding the opinions that you might not agree with,” Grossman said. “People make the mistake of thinking that the way to cultivate a tolerant and pluralistic society is to eliminate bad ideas from public dialogue. There’s an army of politically correct opinion leaders who demand we neutralize speech so that no one is offended. It’s negatively affecting journalism and our ability to speak the truth. This form of censorship is seeping into the collective mindset of Western society and it’s very destructive.”

Grossman agrees with acclaimed polemicists John Stuart Mill and John Milton, who both championed the freedom of expression as the only means to finding truth.

“The fullest liberty of expression is required to push arguments to their logical limits, rather than the limits of social embarrassment,” Mill is quoted as saying in “On Liberty.”

Milton also argued in favor of tolerance for a wide range of views as opposed to a principle of pre-censorship.

“It’s really important to allow these ‘bad’ ideas to flow freely in our society because that’s how we challenge them and confront them above sea level. The minute they go underground, well, that’s how people are harmed and killed with this way of censorship thinking,” Grossman said. “Look at what we are teaching. Teenagers like to be politically correct because that’s what they are being encouraged to do. College kids are worse. They don’t want to offend anyone so everyone has to shut up.”

Once bastions of the bard, college campuses today are becoming more and more intolerant of discourse and divisive opinion. University of Wyoming is just one of numerous higher learning institutions that have quashed free speech by canceling controversial lecturers like Bill Ayers and Ann Coulter.

Comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock no longer perform on campuses because college kids can’t take a joke. Seinfeld cited trigger warnings, speech codes and other First Amendment umbrage while on an ESPN talk show. “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist,’ ‘that’s sexist,’ ‘that’s prejudiced.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”

Rock just called college kids too PC. “They’re way too conservative in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody,” Rock told Vulture. “[They’re] kids raised on a culture of ‘we’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’”

Some colleges have gone as far as to implement a pronoun policy promoting a gender-neutral environment. No more “he” or “she;” in the new age it’s ze, hir, zir, xe, xem and xyr – all in the name of inclusiveness.

While it may sound like a harmless fad, Grossman worries it’s the beginning of a spiraling trend toward the erosion of freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. When they’re gone, Americans will have more to worry about than hurt feelings, she worries.

“It begins with filtering the news. Now that we’ve become a more diverse society, we feel the need to dumb down the media to the safest voice. I see it here in Jackson where we would rather scrub our town clean of any negative discourse rather than let the free flow of negative opinions take place,” Grossman said. “These college kids think they are under such duress sometimes. Well that pales in comparison to what is happening around the world in areas of conflict where unpopular opinions are the rational voices of moderation and they get drowned out by the radical voices. So it’s important to get to kids early and explain this.”

Operation ‘Say’ America

Issues of free speech have come before local leaders. Town officials whitewashed a prayer opening at the downtown rodeo into a nonsectarian “pep talk” in 2012. When Operation Save America (OSA) stormed into town to protest abortion with their graphic baby parts posters, citizens rallied behind Mary Erickson’s “Civility, Compassion, Love” campaign. The Town of Jackson issued a restraining order.

Ed Bushnell is a former journalist for Planet JH who now practices law in Jackson. He was a guest lecturer for Grossman’s course, where he offered insight on the town’s delicate position of weighing protecting freedom of expression against a duty to protect both its citizens and visiting demonstrators.

“It’s a fascinating teaching tool because this issue was no obvious slam dunk. It could have gone either way, really,” Bushnell said of the Wyoming Supreme Court ruling on the case of first impression. “The Wyoming Supreme Court did a great job looking at all the factors. The one thing they thought was a big deal was the court ordered prior restraint, which freezes free speech, rather than an order that would chill it, like monitoring and reacting to the protest.”

The restraining order resulted in the arrest of Pastor Mark Holick, who later sued the Town of Jackson. He won a settlement after a 3-2 state Supreme Court ruling that stated OSA’s First Amendment rights were violated.

Town attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis said she was disappointed with the ruling but with a lack of instate precedent to go on, she felt justified in seeking a district court order at the time.

“We thought it was proper. Judge [Tim] Day thought it was. And two out of five justices thought it was,” Cohen-Davis said.

Cohen-Davis pointed out that OSA was not denied the right to display “all around town.” The restraining order issued against OSA crashing the Boy Scouts’ Elk Antler Auction had more to do with the town’s own special event permitting – the Scouts applied for and received a special events permit to be on the town square – which is a requirement for groups looking to use public parks in town. The town also failed to prove how OSA’s abortion photos would harm children, according to Cohen-Davis.

The incident was a costly one for the town and the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool. Two separate lawsuits were settled for a total of $275,000.

With a better roadmap of free speech litigation in place now for Wyoming’s municipalities, lawyers like Cohen-Davis feel a little more comfortable interpreting constitutional matters.

“These constitutional issues that are coming down now are huge for local government,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how the courts evolve on topics like prayer and protest. There are a lot of legal issues. Sometimes we have to get up to speed quickly.”

Walking the talk

Grossman is launching an organization called Minds Wide Open that she expects might one day blossom into a full-fledged nonprofit. The passion for open dialogue that allows for the fullest unfiltered expression of viewpoints is something Grossman championed when she was publisher of Planet JH, too. “When Judd and I started The Planet, our main vision was to provide a forum that was welcoming to all opinions, including unpopular opinion,” Grossman said. “Many times the entire paper was filled with opinion I didn’t agree with. But I went to bat for writers who wrote all kinds of difficult things. We felt it was more important to uphold their right to free speech than to filter the news.” PJH

Caption: The Instagram winning shot that embodies free speech in Jackson Hole during Free Speech Week, Oct. 19-25.

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