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Preserve Free Speech, Even During Perilous Times

The incident might have been funny had it not been farcical. Perhaps it would have been silly had it not also been at least a little scary.

In <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Guilderland, N.Y., Stephen Downs and his son, Roger, entered Crossgates Mall, bought T-shirts and put them on. The T-shirts said, “Peace On Earth” and “Give Peace A Chance.” One of the shirts reportedly also said, “No War In Iraq.” Mall security guards ordered the Downses to remove the shirts or leave. Stephen Downs refused and was arrested for trespassing. That set off a war of words, waged particularly on talk radio and in Internet chatrooms, where terms such as “scumbag” and “leech” are the most favorable descriptions affixed to both the Downses and the security guards.

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OK, maybe the Downs/Crossgates Mall episode is a blip on the American attention monitor. Certainly, it is rare. Every day, people walk around malls wearing offensive T-shirts, usually the kind bought at souvenir stores in tourist towns. The Downses probably will enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, and we’ll all forget them before you can say, “tomorrow’s newspaper.”

But I’ve found this incident troubling. Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember Vietnam. Maybe it’s because I’ m a traditional liberty-loving Baptist. Maybe it’s because I read the mail and answer the telephone.

We’ve discussed some timely and contentious issues on this page this year. They include racism, capital punishment, war in Iraq, the Texas Legislature, separation of church and state, national interference in state convention issues, the tendencies of fundamentalism, President Bush’s faith and the state government’s treatment of the weak and the poor.

As you might imagine, Texas Baptists have strong feelings about these issues, and they’re not shy about expressing them. That’s as it should be. We champion soul freedom and affirm each individual’s right to an opinion and to express that opinion.

Unfortunately, however, more and more people seem to feel only one side of an issue should be represented or heard. The other, like the Downses’ T-shirts, should be silenced or voiced in a jail cell. Some people apparently have forgotten the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, even speech that is offensive, contrary and just plain weird. They miss the irony of their position: The places where offensive speech is controlled are places we find offensive, such as dictatorships, theocracies and the last bastions of communism.

Not so many years ago, this country fought in a war that was unpopular with many Americans. Almost as viciously, we fought a war of words at home. The wounds of both have taken a generation to heal. Of course, the Middle East is not Vietnam, if for no other reason than that we have no precedent for 9/11 and the terror it inflicted upon our psyches. As Americans, we should strive not to hurl the kind of hatred that divided us in the ’60s and ’70s. But more importantly, we should defend the other’s right to express opinions about war and peace and the conduct of our nation. Not only is this a constitutional right; it is a moral mandate.

Baptists have a historical interest in protecting individual liberty and freedom of speech. In 17th century England, pioneer Baptist Thomas Helwys died in prison for telling King James all people should be free to worship God. In Early America, Virginia Baptist pastors languished in jail for refusing to register with the government in order to preach. As this nation was birthed, Baptist pastor John Leland worked with James Madison to secure First Amendment guarantees for religion as well as speech. We Baptists have stood at the forefront of the battle to protect all practices of religion and all manner of speech. Once we were the minority and knew the pain of tyranny. As we grew stronger, we vowed to preserve basic rights for all.

We live in tense, uncertain days. Terrorism has become a reality few Americans imagined 18 months ago. We have sent precious daughters and sons around the world, prepared to fight a war. Our economy has imploded. People do strange things in strange times. Things like adopting an “everyone for himself” philosophy. Things like responding out of emotion instead of principle and conviction.

No matter how hard the times, I pray Texas Baptists will remain true to our faith-born heritage and champion liberty for all, especially those with whom we might disagree. 
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.