Bruce Maiman

Do officials realize even a swastika is free speech?

Some elected officials are demanding that a River Park homeowner remove a display featuring swastikas. Bruce Maiman says the best way to respond to hate speech is with more speech.
Some elected officials are demanding that a River Park homeowner remove a display featuring swastikas. Bruce Maiman says the best way to respond to hate speech is with more speech. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

I wondered whether to waste any words on the now well-publicized swastika display in front of a Sacramento home. Then some elected officials opened their mouths.

The River Park house flaunts American and Israeli flags with their stars replaced by swastikas, and a wooden man in Army green holding his hands up, along with a Palestinian flag. Christmas lights provide nighttime visibility.

The homeowner has refused to take it down. Artistic or political expression, some say.

Our immediate reaction is understandable. A motif dating to ancient cultures as old as 10,000 B.C., the swastika is now the stigmatized image of a time when men walked the earth without a heart.

But it is no more illegal to brandish in your front yard than it is to fly a Confederate flag above your roof. I hope lawmakers demanding the homeowner remove his display know they have absolutely no legal ground to enforce that. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of civics knows that the First Amendment, indeed, our entire Bill of Rights, was intended to protect citizens from government tyranny.

No, the legislators aren’t being tyrants, but I wish at least one had the courage not only to recognize the homeowner’s right to erect that display but to defend that right – vigorously. So should we all.

I say this as someone whose paternal grandmother lost her entire family to Nazi horror. As it has been told to me, she came to America decades before. The rest never emigrated and they perished in concentration camps.

So when a flustered parent asks how they can possibly explain this to their children, we should tell them that as obscene as that display may be, the First Amendment must stand. Free speech is easy to defend when it’s speech we like. The real test of our fidelity to that inalienable right is in the face of inconvenient, annoying and even hateful speech. Freedom of speech is meaningless unless it protects the freedom of those who think differently, offensively and even appallingly.

Recall the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision that even the right of obnoxious Westboro Baptist Church protesters outside military funerals “cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.” If you would ban the Westboro protests, you defame what soldiers have died to protect.

As abhorrent as those church members’ protests were, or this homeowner’s display is, the true violation of our nation’s principles would be to quash their right to do it.

That doesn’t mean you’re protected from the consequences of your speech – criticism, shame or loss of anonymity – though some believe the homeowner did this for attention. Only he knows that for sure. Some neighbors say they’ve tried to reason with the man, while others who thought about it wisely resisted the temptation to tear down or vandalize the display.

Other measures exist. Some communities, of course, have covenants, conditions and restrictions by which all homeowners must abide. Some cities have enacted ordinances that fine residents for poorly maintained property. Elsewhere, people have filed civil suits against neighbors who allow their property to become an eyesore. Imagine trying to sell a home on the same street as this River Park resident. Who would move there?

Invariably, we have two choices. We can ignore the whole thing, which seems nearly impossible, especially for our red meat-loving media.

Or we can take this path. When Westboro members arrived in Anderson to protest the 2008 funeral of Joshua Munns, a private security contractor killed in Iraq, bikers showed up on their Harleys and, with engine noise and exhaust fumes, literally drowned out and fumigated the picketers.

Imagine an effort resulting in hundreds of American, Israeli and, may I suggest, German and Palestinian flags, planted up and down Moddison Street, reinforced by signs and images of patriotic solidarity. The best way to protest contemptible free speech is with more speech, not less. You’d think, given their penchant for posturing and bloviating, lawmakers could grasp that concept.

Bruce Maiman regularly fills in as a host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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