Friday, February 16, 2007

Idaho should not muzzle free speech


A troubling trend in American life has been the unconscionable efforts of special interest groups to muzzle speech to achieve their ends.

The most rigorous and visible example is the persistent, but so far futile, effort of self-styled patriot groups to ban "desecration" of Old Glory with a U.S. Constitution amendment. Courts have so far deemed flag burning to be protected by the First Amendment's free speech provision, no matter how repulsive to most Americans.

Two current efforts in the Idaho Legislature—one to restrict free speech, another to revive it—are of concern.

First, Republican Rep. Bob Nonini of Coeur d'Alene is working with anti-abortion groups to enact a bill to outlaw what they describe as "threats" that may be used to try to convince a female to have an abortion.

But one person's threat is another person's free speech.

The legislation that provides up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for violations could be interpreted to include a parent telling a daughter to "never darken this doorstep again if you don't have an abortion." An anti-free-choice county prosecutor might even stretch the law to cover a counselor's statement to a juvenile that "if you have this baby, you will have no future."

How curiously contradictory that the same abortion foes who would try to restrict speech in this case are ferociously demanding of the right to conduct in-your-face free speech demonstrations at abortion clinics, Planned Parenthood offices and homes of abortion advocates.

The other notable speech activity is the effort of Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, to abolish a provision in the law that allows only those living within one mile of a proposed Confined Animal Feeding Operation to comment at a site hearing.

This gag on free speech is a tribute to the power of the dairy industry to enact a law that, if taken to court, would be deemed an unconstitutional limit on speech.

CAFOs are among the most pernicious threats to public health. Yet experts on water and air contamination not living within one mile of a dairy are banned from comment. Every other public hearing is open for comment from anyone.

Why muzzle comment from "outsiders?" Health experts would point out the intolerable risks to air and water of some dairy sites, which could lead to reforms that commercial feedlot operators oppose as too costly, although they are far costlier as health risks to others.

Idaho leaders should refuse to squelch every American's right to free speech.




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