A defense of extreme expression or “Why I ‘engaged’ with Operation Save America”

Web Bonus: A defense of extreme expression or “Why I ‘engaged’ with Operation Save America”
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
By Richard Abowitz

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – I spent hours talking to Operation Save America protestors, and I had a blast debating religion, sexuality, and of course, abortion. But as much as I am sure they enjoyed my conversation what is sure to bring them back next year is the massively organized (and totally misguided) local effort to purposefully ignore them and to bully everyone else into doing so as well.

Unlike the fluff, entertainment value and prurience of most of the horrifying imagery that thoroughly pollutes our culture, the signs Operation Save America carried were to make a point. It is not a point I agree with at all. But consider the situation from the perspective of OSA members who believe that abortion is murder. If you felt children (or people of any age) were being slaughtered en masse, wouldn’t the concerns about rude signs – designed to wake people up to the genocide – seem to be trivial in the face of the body count? I give OSA the courtesy of taking their beliefs as sincerely held and with that assumption much of their behavior makes sense.

The anti-anti-abortion protestors, Jackson Hole United, were careful to claim members who are both pro-life and pro-choice. The Facebook group for JHU offers this definition: “We are pro-life and pro-choice citizens of Jackson Hole standing for civility, compassion and love, united to protect our community and our children.” Moving the emphasis away from abortion was to make clear that the JHU objection was not to the views of OSA, but how they were being expressed. But JHU was also marking a subtle line by creating a gap between them and us. The assumption being the community was united against the legitimacy of these outsider protestors.

Does it go without saying that free speech is not free? It is very expensive, and last year Jackson did not pay for the freedoms we enjoy in the United States. Jackson instead abused the courts to behave in a shameful extra-Constitutional way that deprived OSA members of their First Amendment rights. The result was that even more protestors came this year. Yet many locals were still looking for loopholes in the law to stop them again. Go through the Facebook posts on JHU and you will find many legally-inclined people still playing footsie with censorship by offering ideas to use zoning, noise ordinances and other regulations to suppress the OSA protests. Being a weasel to stop free speech by another method is more like how Putin’s Russian democracy works.

So for myself, to protest that earlier suppression of speech, I wanted to hear what OSA had to say. But to talk to OSA protestors required me to buck a massive amount of peer pressure. JHU’s Facebook group attracted thousands of members by rather insistently encouraging locals to be good citizens by “ignoring with intentionality” the protestors. This was far more than a detour around the ugly signs but a campaign to stop locals from listening, talking or taking handouts from OSA. As JHU put it in a press release: “The group will educate about the importance of non-engagement through a series of letters and emails, press releases, advertising and social networking.” That is a lot of propaganda pouring forth with the message that talking to the protestors makes you a bad community member. But for many it worked. After a week spent following, detouring cars and obsessing over every move of OSA, the posters on JHU proudly declared victory when the protestors finally left Jackson as scheduled.

Of course, OSA protestors did not feel defeated or circumvented. Unsurprisingly, they saw the JHU effort of t-shirts, signs and even the Facebook group as evidence of their success in getting the attention of Jackson residents. And talking to the protestors on Sunday as they prepared to leave Jackson it is clear they are pleased enough by that reaction that they will be back next year. Of course, next year I will be able to comfortably ignore them as I took the time and listened to them this year.

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