In 1989 the U.S. The Supreme Court ruled that flag-burning was protected by the First Amendment. It was a well-reasoned and just decision about symbolic speech.
In 2005 a Danish newspapers ran a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in ways some Muslims found blasphemous. None of the cartoons were obscene. Some were funny, some in bad taste, and some were plain bigoted. The cartoons led to protests in many countries and riots in some, including deaths. But the newspaper had every right to run the cartoons. I remember running them myself on a previous website I owned, not so much in support of their message, but in support of the newspaper’s right to run them, and against any argument that Muslim or any religious claims to blasphemy somehow trump humor or freed speech.
Ten years later 12 people were murdered by Islamist fanatics in and around the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, after it ran covers making fun of Muhammad. We were all Charlie that day. We should still be. You have the right to your hurt feelings, but no one is forcing you to buy the magazine, and you sure as hell don’t have the right to silence a magazine because of your feelings.
In 2011 the U.S. Supreme court by a near-unanimous margin applied a similar reasoning when it ruled that anti-gay demonstrators spewing obscenities at the funerals of American servicemen are protected by the First Amendment. This is what Oliver Wendell Holmes meant when he argued persuasively for the freedom for the thought that we hate. The First Amendment would be meaningless if it only protected happy thoughts and conventional blabber. St. Augustine, that first Puritan, never tired of speaking of mere curiosity as “sacrilegious.” Well, journalism, literature, cinema at their best is nothing if not sacrilegious. There’s not only a right but at times a duty to offend.
Examples overflow. There was also the case of the rancid Gainesville preacher who held a “Burn a Koran” Day (reprehensible, but still defensible on free speech grounds: if the flag, why not scriptures?). And just a few weeks ago a near-unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of cheerleader Brani Levy, 14, to write “Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything” on a social media page, from home: her school’s authority should not have policing reach beyond the schoolhouse door.
All this to bring us to the ongoing controversy in Flagler Beach over those obscene Fuck Biden signs peddled on a regular basis by your average Trump goons, on placards and on the side of a mastodon of a truck that’s been used since last year as an ambulant board for boors. The signs are obscene. The message, which continues to blare the lie that Trump was the real winner of last November’s election, is Qanon mythology, and I have no problem saying that the people masquerading as protesters out there are stupid, rude, and many times more deplorable than the basket cases Hillary Clinton spoke of in 2016. These goons are corroding democracy and sullying communities with their behavior. And it is to me unquestionable that they do not represent the ordinary Trump supporter, even in Flagler.
More likely, they’re the effluents of groups like the Qanon-powered “Flagler Liberty Coalition” or the Trump Club so proudly led by the likes of Ed Danko and Alan Lowe, his Sancho Panza he wants installed as Palm Coast mayor. Danko, the Palm Coast City Council member, has told me previously his group has nothing to do with the goons. Really? I’ve never heard him denounce them from the city council dais, where it would actually matter, the way he so often denounces–slanders, defames, denigrates–people he doesn’t like.
For all that, we should be defending these vulgar demonstrators’ right to say what they please and plaster what insults they want on their signs, obscene or not. I’ve seen many an obscene sign at Black Lives Matter marches and was happy for them. BLM marches happen to have justice on their side. Those Trump goons do not. But that’s irrelevant in this context. We don’t make these judgment calls when it comes to free speech in public places precisely because we don’t want to create a hierarchy of do’s and don’ts. There’s no policing content. And critical theory’s outlandish claims aside, words are just that: words.
What matters is the law. Obscenity is not illegal, nor should it be. You’d be a fool to be obscene to a cop or a judge or anyone at a street corner for that matter, but it’s your right. You can’t be arrested for it–not even if you call the judge names in court (unless it becomes disruptive, but that’s a different legal matter). And if anyone were hassled or arrested over an obscene sign, that would be the true obscenity, because at that point we’d be shredding the First Amendment.
But to be clear: this is speech in public venues, not in private spaces, in privately-owned media, in private businesses, including newspapers and social media sites, which are not First Amendment zones by any stretch, and have every right to police their content to the extent they see fit.
Flagler Beach or the broader community are not without means against these insulting idiots, who so far have had the run of Veterans Park unimpeded. I recall in 2006 when Liquid, the strip club, opened at 2444 S. Oceanshore Blvd., the community rallied, protested, picketed nightly, and got itself an attorney (the intrepid Dennis Bayer) even as the club sued in federal court on its own First Amendment grounds–which, truth be told, would have prevailed had the club had the stomach for the fight. It didn’t. It closed four months later. Not that there’s much comparison between the rabid Trumpsters and a strip club (a strip club is infinitely more honorable), but there is a comparison between the community’s reactions in the two instances. Why are the “demonstrators” allowed such free rein? Why no counter-protests? Where are those civility-dripping Democrats? Where are the more reasonable Republicans?
Smart-phone videos and hopes of getting the demonstrators pushed off or shut down won’t do. Plenty of that is going on as it is in this cancel culture on speed. Let’s not amplify the trend and look worse than those street-corner goons. They advertise their idiocy every time they demonstrate. Let’s not turn them into free speech martyrs by trying to silence them the wrong way. But letting them roam free isn’t the only way, either.