Free Speech Needs Protectors as Skilled as the NRA

Art in honor of the Muzzle Awards

At the First Amendment Monument, by Sam Welty.
(Image courtesy of The Thomas Jefferson Center.)

The U.S. Senate’s failure to pass modest gun reform demonstrated once again the vast power of gun rights groups. If only the guardians of other rights had their influence.

The National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, a group that manages to make the NRA look reasonable, have convinced millions of Americans that all other fundamental rights flow from the Second Amendment. The NRA even named one of its magazines “America’s 1st Freedom” after this principle.

Constitutional scholars and anyone who has passed a high school civics class might disagree with this overly simplistic view. Our basic rights are a web of liberty, each building off and supporting the others. However, if one wants to get literal about it, our first freedoms are in the First Amendment. They are, in order, religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly and petitioning the government.

They are not rights because we can point firearms at the government but because we are Americans and because we are usually rational human beings.

Still, you have to hand it to the NRA and GOA for getting their mad constitutional theory to stick. They frighten politicians of both major parties into doing their bidding and vigilantly oppose even the slightest measures to keep the deadliest firearms out of the wrong hands.

The rights contained in the First, Fourth and other amendments have protectors, too, but none as successful as the gun lobby. Even the American Civil Liberties Union on its best day cannot claim to match the NRA. Often, defenders can hope only to bring attention to the worst abuses.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression does just that with its annual Muzzle Awards, recognizing some of the worst instances of the government silencing the people. This year’s winners (losers?) are typical.

Educators took home three of the nine muzzles, failing miserably in their mission to teach the youth of America.

There was the Pennsylvania school board that banned an award-winning children’s book from elementary school libraries. It deemed “The Dirty Cowboy” to be too risqué after a few prudish parents complained. Note to parents: All the naughty bits of the bathing cowboy were tactfully covered. It will not corrupt young minds.

High school Principal David Smith of Prague, Okla. won a muzzle for withholding valedictorian Kaitlin Nootbaar’s diploma after the young woman said “hell” in her commencement speech. She was relating an anecdote about all the people who asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. “How the hell should I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times,” she said. The pre-approved speech had contained “heck,” and the double hockey sticks were too much for Smith.

In one of those delicious ironies you just can’t make up, the school’s sports teams are the “Red Devils,” who presumably were cast into heck.

Elsewhere in the Sooner State, Oklahoma City public schools ban students from wearing “clothing bearing the names or emblems of all professional and collegiate athletic teams (with the exception of Oklahoma colleges and universities).” When five-year-old Cooper Barton showed up for kindergarten wearing a t-shirt proclaiming him a University of Michigan Wolverine’s fan, the principal sent him behind a tree to turn it inside out.

Muzzle-winning attacks on free expression were not limited to schools. The Idaho State Liquor Division banned a Utah distiller’s “Five Wives Vodka” because it didn’t like the name. Granted, it’s a bit distasteful, but that isn’t for the government to decide.

Then there was Missouri State Rep. Mike Leara. After the December shootings in Connecticut, he introduced a bill that would criminalize gun legislation. It read, “Any member of the general assembly who proposes a piece of legislation that further restricts the right of an individual to bear arms, as set forth under the second amendment of the Constitution of the United States, shall be guilty of a class D felony.”

It was obviously unconstitutional and had no chance of passing! That did not stop Leara from proving the point. In modern America, it’s all right to subjugate the First Amendment to the Second. Just don’t try the reverse.

The Broad Side’s newest contributor Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

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