Posted on Thu, Apr. 30, 2009

‘Offensive’ has no legal status

Auburn City Councilman Arthur Dowdell refers to himself as “a civil rights leader.” Maybe his leadership credentials would be materially enhanced by a working acquaintance with some of the ancillary realities of civil rights — like those enumerated in the United States Constitution.

Last Thursday afternoon, Confederate flags had been placed on the graves of Civil War soldiers buried in Auburn’s Pine Hill Cemetery in anticipation of Confederate Memorial Day, for which Monday was a state holiday in Alabama. Dowdell, who described the cemetery as decorated “like a Klan rally or skinhead rally,” reportedly pulled up several of the flags, including one from the grave of the great-grandfather of Auburn Heritage Association President Mary Norman. Ms. Norman witnessed the incident, and a friend reportedly photographed Dowdell leaving the cemetery with the flags he had pulled up.

"I should have broken them all,” Dowdell was quoted as saying Friday. “They are offensive to me. They represent racism and the Ku Klux Klan."

Maybe it’s just a symptom of some larger and spreading civic disintegration. But it’s absurd that any American, especially an elected official, would not know (or maybe just chooses to ignore) the fact that the same freedom of expression protecting his right to publicly insult people involved in this kind of observance likewise protects their rights — in this case, the right to use the historic symbol of the Confederate flag to decorate Confederate graves if they so desire.

And that somebody else’s state of offendedness does not, thank God, nullify the First Amendment.

In fact, the critical issue here really has nothing to do with one’s perspective on the Confederacy, nor is it really about cemeteries, holidays or flags. It’s about the absolute necessity, in this constitutional republic, of respecting the right of someone else to reflect perspectives we find repugnant, and which we would demand the right to publicly refute.

The bedrock American principle of “I despise what you say but defend your right to say it” seems especially fragile of late. It’s regularly manifested in politically self-serving silliness like flag desecration amendments and the like; perhaps it crumbled just a tiny bit more last week at a cemetery in Auburn.

The people involved in Confederate Memorial Day and similar observances no doubt find Dowdell’s comparison of them to Klansmen and skinheads offensive in the extreme. Yet the councilman almost certainly will not, and absolutely should not, face legal repercussions for those remarks.

The law respects and protects his right to say such things, just as it respects people’s right to public displays of symbols and observances he and others disapprove of.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

— Dusty Nix, for the editorial board

On The Web:   www.ledger-enquirer.com/news/opinion/story/703925.html