Free speech, as it turns out, needs protecting
It was an eye-opener for me, that’s for sure.
At the Waynesville Town Board meeting on July 25, a crowd showed up to protest physical, violent threats made on social media against a trans person who made use of the Waynesville Recreation Center. As has been the customary rule for public speaking at Waynesville board meetings, each speaker is asked to state their name and address.
The speaker, who later identified as trans once at the microphone, was worried about physical violence if a home address was read out loud into the public record. After asking, the person was allowed to whisper their address to the town clerk.
Just like that, what I had viewed as for the most part an issue occurring outside our region hit home — the threat of physical violence associated with one’s political, ideological or cultural beliefs. In other words, we’re at a place where people may become afraid to stand up for what they believe.
Recognizing the problem, Waynesville has passed a measure that from now on won’t require speakers to list their address.
“I wanted to make sure everyone felt safe giving their views, no matter what those views are, and not having to worry about people showing up at their house or calling them,” said Alderman Anthony Sutton of his recommendation to change the rules.
“The political climate has changed so dramatically over the last six years,” he said.
Indeed it has. The fear of reprisals is all too real, especially for those elected or appointed to important positions. Here’s a news item from PBS that occurred in January 2023: “Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, linked a series of drive-by shootings that damaged the homes of local Democratic politicians to a defeated Republican candidate. The case spotlights the troubling rise in extremist violence targeting elected officials across the country.”
If you follow the news, then you’ve heard about crimes like this. It’s a dangerous precedent, and it’s happening across all political ideologies. The incident above was a clear act of violence and intimidation by a person who lost an election. But the threats of violence or potential violence against those who hold different views have been increasing across the country.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, conservative justices had to deal with protestors outside their private homes. I remember a photo from 2022 in USA Today that showed a half-dozen law enforcement officers outside the home of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he supported the ruling that would severely limit a woman’s right to an abortion. Protestors showed up, and while they were peaceful, the demonstrations forced us to consider what kind of safeguards are in place to protect politicians and judges from those who disagree with them.
Imagine if those who disagreed with a town board or county commission meeting started showing up at your house to protest. Or, as with the person at the Waynesville meeting, you had to live in fear of someone showing up not just to protest but perhaps to actually commit some violent crime. It’s frightening.
Our news editor, Kyle Perrotti, wrote a column a few weeks ago where he discussed several stories he’s covered over the last couple of years where a kind of vigilante justice was threatened. It’s real.
Lay the blame where you want — the emotional fervor often used on social media, the common use of violence-laced rhetoric from politicians, the inability of people to compromise while respecting the views of others — but it’s on the rise and it’s worrisome. For better or worse, I suspect we’ll witness measures like the one approved in Waynesville getting ever more popular over the next few years.