Commentary: Our Town would be wise to back off regulating free speech

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William Carter

William Carter is a retired longtime Franklin city employee and published author. He may be contacted at wcarterfranklin@aol.com.

Ronald Reagan said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’” 

Those are the words that came to mind a month or so back when I read that the powers that be in Our Town were looking into what they call “public expression events” and how to make them “safer” for residents.  

I could feel my ACLU membership card heating up in my wallet at the same time a cold chill crawled up my spine. Then I started thinking about how, during the Bush Jr. era, municipalities across the country started setting up “free speech areas” whenever that particular cowboy came to town so people with “opposing views” could “safely” voice their opinions.   

Generally, it meant that anyone who wanted to protest whatever W or his minions were up to were rounded up by law enforcement and then sent to an area blocks, or even miles, away from the venue so Our Leaders wouldn’t have to hear things they didn’t want to hear. They were treated like cattle, these protesters — our fellow citizens — were, all in the name of “safety.” 

If I recall, that little news item about “public expression events” in Our Town rattled around in my head for only a couple of hours or so. It was close to the holidays and there were other things on my mind. Besides, I thought, how could the patronizing views toward their own citizens by a few elected officials in a small town in Middle Tennessee even begin to compare to the daily dismantling of our Constitutional rights at a federal level since Election Day 2016?   

Thinking on it now, I realize how uncharacteristic forgetting about that little news item was for me. Age, and exhaustion from the current political climate, it seemed, had dampened the left-wing, liberal activist passion I’ve always been so proud to display. 

But, a few weeks ago, the issue popped up again in a news article about how Our Town might now start requiring permits for public demonstrations.  

Maybe it’s just the lingering sugar buzz fizzing through my veins from the 37 pounds of Christmas cookies I ate through the holidays, but I’m revitalized now and more than a little p---ed off about how, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the proverbial inch disguised as a “safety” issue in that ordinance will surely turn into a mile of roadblocks for peaceful protest if it is allowed to pass and interpreted by officials elected in a town notorious for its low voter turnout.   

From the onset, in my opinion, at least, the proposed ordinance hits the table full of holes. In draft form, it requires that anyone wanting to hold a demonstration request a permit five days before the event only if 25 or more participants are expected. What if the organizers expect only 20 people but, on the day of the demonstration, eight more decide to attend? Are they in violation?   

What if there are only 23 protesters but 57 observers? Will the 57 observers each be cited and fined for spontaneously gathering to watch a peaceful protest, or will they each be considered a protest of one and not require a permit?  

What if 26 people, unbeknownst and independent of each other, decide to protest the same thing at the same time in the same place? What if 26 people decide to protest 26 different issues, but at the same time at the same place?   

What if those 26 different issues draw 20 protesters each, and 520 people, legally, according to the proposed ordinance, show up at noon on the public square?   

What mid-level manager from our city administration will be assigned to regulate our right as Americans to voice our opinions whenever and wherever we feel like? Why would we, as tax-paying citizens, even think about giving our city government a sliver of an opportunity to pat us all on the head and say “There, there, don’t worry. We’ll save you from having to hear opinions different from your own”? 

For more than a quarter of a century, I worked for the city. It took a couple of years, but I finally realized that, as with any organization that employs more than two people, our local government was mired in double standards. Each and every department head interprets guidelines and procedures depending on how they think they will best benefit their own agendas. 

That’s a harsh statement, I know, but it’s true, and I don’t expect anyone to take my word for it. Just about any former or current city employee, if given anonymity, will describe how the following of rules and regulations that should apply to everyone are, in reality, subject to the mood of whoever is interpreting them at the time. That’s why this seemingly innocuous proposed ordinance bothers me so much.   

I can promise, right now, that there will come a time, if the ordinance is passed, that some clerk in City Hall will decide on their own not to grant a permit just because they don’t like the organization doing the protesting or the issue they’re protesting for or against. It’ll only be a matter of time before someone with a malfunctioning moral compass decides we need to be protected from something they think we don’t need to hear. 

Curiously, the news article cites a Klan rally that happened on Public Square in Our Town in 1980 — 40 years ago.  

I remember it vividly because I was driving into town on Franklin Road and stopped at the light at First Avenue. In the middle of the intersection were two Klansmen in full regalia. They were holding plastic buckets and approaching drivers to ask for donations. I remember there was nothing even remotely terrifying about them. On the contrary, all I saw were two fat, middle-age men wearing pointy hats and garish robes, sweating in the midday sun.  

We need to see more, not less, of these things, I think. What better way than unobstructed public demonstration and public protest to take the fear away and expose something as supposedly scary as the Klan for what they really are: sad, fat clowns begging for spare change.

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