Editorial: Free speech is for everyone

The First Amendment doesn’t address ignorance. Even hate mongers have the right to peaceably assemble.

As such, the only action the Lawrence City Commission should take in response to the group of racists who protested Saturday in downtown Lawrence is to condemn such groups and ensure law enforcement is prepared, as police certainly appeared to be on Saturday, in the event the so-called “Defend the Flag” participants or similar groups wish to return to Lawrence.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission heard significant public comment regarding the protest, which unnerved many. The protesters — apparently people not savvy enough to recognize a phony event on social media when they see one, as the “Drag the Flag” event most certainly was — waved Confederate flags and spewed hate.

For the most part, Lawrence police said, the protest was nonviolent, though one person was arrested in connection with damage to property and there were heated exchanges between protesters and counter-protesters.

But the event made many uncomfortable.

“I definitely think that everyone has the right to free speech, and that includes people who don’t hold the same ideals or positions as me,” said Bita Porubsky. “But I do think the Confederate flag, the intimidation, the violence, even though it wasn’t physical, was still very present. So I just want the community leaders to be able to address the community and let us know that that type of behavior is not appropriate here in Lawrence, and if you do want to protest here, this is how you do it.”

Added Dave Loewenstein, “Ignoring them or hoping they were an aberration would serve to normalize this behavior and is not an option if we believe in the fundamental well-being of our community.”

The city does not require permits for marches or protests, unless the group is going to affect traffic or use a city building. Public spaces are free to all to use for marches, protests, etc. And that’s the way it should be. The City Commission can’t zone its way around the First Amendment. Free speech is for all, including those with nothing good to say.

But the City Commission can condemn such events, in the strongest possible terms. And residents, like those who spoke at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting, can and should make their voices heard, that bigotry, racism and hate will never find a welcome mat in Lawrence.