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Free Speech Can Get Ugly

water tank painted to resemble the Texas flag in a field, next to a windpump
Near Hamilton, Texas. Photo by Steven Polunsky.

Depending on your political leanings, you might consider a lawn sign that depicts a GOP elephant with its nose up the skirt of a little girl to be perfectly appropriate or perfectly disgusting – maybe even both.

But regardless of the reaction it elicits, one thing is clear: Such a sign is political speech that is protected from government suppression under the First Amendment. Which is why the confiscation of such a sign by the police in Hamilton, Texas was perfectly wrong.

Hamilton resident Marion Stanford posted a handmade sign in her yard with the aforementioned illustration and the message “Your Vote Matters.” Stanford told The Dallas Morning News that she expected that it would draw a reaction, but that it expressed her dissatisfaction with the state of the Republican Party. “I thought the sign represented what is going on now, and we can’t just stand quiet. I wanted to tell people we could stop it with voting,” Stanford said.

But while she was expecting some level of controversy from her neighbors, she did not expect the police to get involved.

The situation escalated after Sid Miller, Texas’ agriculture commissioner, shared an image of Stanford’s yard on Facebook along with the apparently baseless claim that the girl depicted on the sign was meant to represent one of Brett Kavanaugh’s daughters. Stanford has emphatically denied that this was her intent, and said the sign was her re-creation of a political cartoon that ran in The Washington Post in 2017 in reaction to President Trump’s endorsement of Roy Moore.

In the aftermath of Miller’s post, Stanford received a variety of obnoxious phone calls and Facebook harassment. But she was still taken aback when police came to her house and said that, in light of complaints they had received, they would remove the sign. Stanford said that officers told her that if she did not let them take it, they would arrest her; the city manager of Hamilton has denied that any officer mentioned arrest.

Either way, the incident seems to be a clear-cut violation of Stanford’s First Amendment rights. While the sign may upset or offend, it is clearly not obscene by the legal definition of that term. Miller’s campaign spokesman, Todd Smith, described the sign as “vulgar and disgusting” – neither of which would disqualify it from constitutional protection.

Today’s Republicans, myself included, have reason to assert that we are the First Amendment’s best friends. The majority of us agree with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United holding that the government cannot suppress political speech according to its speaker or its funding. We defend the right of conservative speakers to talk on state university campuses, and of interested attendees to hear what they have to say, regardless of how unpopular their message might be. Disgusting speech is still speech, and it is as thoroughly protected by the First Amendment as is the text of the Gettysburg Address.

Judging from his campaign’s Facebook page, Miller is about as conservative as an American politician gets these days. I don’t know him, but I expect he would describe himself as being for God, Texas and Country, if not necessarily in that order. I imagine he thinks of himself as a defender of the Constitution, especially the Second Amendment.

But we don’t get to pick and choose the parts of the Constitution we defend. We’re Republicans. We believe in law and institutions and due process and individual choice coupled with individual responsibility. Most of all, we believe the Constitution means exactly what it says, no more and certainly no less.

No police officer, acting in an official capacity, should ever confiscate a political yard sign displayed by a citizen, with the arguable exception of something that violates a content-neutral ordinance that, say, restricts the size or placement of all yard signs. It does not matter whether the officer explicitly threatens or coerces the homeowner. Upon learning of the officer’s actions, the city should have immediately apologized and returned the sign to its owner.

The sign apparently is back in Stanford’s hands, albeit with a justification rather than an apology. Hamilton City Administrator Pete Kampfer said, “We’re doing the best we can,” which is certainly not “I’m sorry,” though it is perhaps a smidge better than nothing. Stanford has said that she plans to auction the sign to raise money to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. From a GOP standpoint, all the fuss that Miller and other critics raised about this particular piece of political commentary will have boomeranged.

It’s just speech, folks. Some of us may think the message is ugly, but the freedom to say it is the most perfect thing our country’s founders bequeathed to us. Protect it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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