A question of speech

Jul. 21, 2014 @ 05:45 PM

We take the right to free speech very seriously in this country -- generally, support for that principle spans political lines.

It is axiomatic that the more distasteful speech may be, the more important it is that we stand firm in a person or group’s right to make that speech. Here’s where the landscape gets trickier, though. Human beings being human, it is not too difficult to rationalize that some speech with which you disagree steps over the bounds.

That is a slippery slope.  If I find your heartfelt protests odious and in such bad taste that they should be silenced what’s to keep you from finding mine likewise impermissible?

Durham, by and large, is a hotbed of free speech activism – we love robust debate, we have a long history of public protest and have over the years had ample reason to stand firm for free speech and its close cousin, academic freedom.

So that, perhaps, is why most people seem to have looked the other way as a single resident’s strident assault on Sheriff Mike Andrews escalated.

The signs, notable for labeling the sheriff “NEFARIOUS,” commenced during the May primary campaign. Andrews handily won the Democratic primary against two contenders, and faces no Republican opposition on the November ballot, so he is all but assured of election to the office he first filled by appointment when longtime Sheriff Worth Hill retired.

But not only have the “nefarious” signs continued, they have proliferated around downtown. The grass strip along Dillard Street in front of the Durham County Courthouse is a virtual forest of the identical signs

Aside from raising eyebrows of quizzical passers-by, the signs’ visual onslaught has attracted the attention of city officials. Councilman Steve Schewel, a former newspaper publisher whose activist roots trace to the raucous 1960s, has suggested its time to look at an ordinance change.

“It’s an issue of should the public right of ways be offered for unlimited use by anyone with an opinion and the money to put up an unlimited number of signs,” Schewel told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg.

He raises a valid point. And courts have ruled that some content-neutral limitations on signs pass constitutional muster.

David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, writing for the center, observed in a similar context:

“A city may regulate the size, shape and location of yard signs. Such regulations may very well qualify as content-neutral and reasonable ‘time, place and manner’ restrictions on speech. Similarly, a city may be able to establish a 10-sign limit per residence on yard signs. At some point, the sheer number of signs might realistically impair the aesthetics of a neighborhood.”

Of course, timing would suggest that however content-neutral any new regulations might be, stilling Lynch’s voice – and protecting a fellow elected official from vituperation – is the immediate impact.

We look forward to a thoughtful discussion, but perhaps waiting out this storm and then putting in some reasonable content-neutral bounds would ward off similar situations.