This week the commissioners and citizens of Marion County got one of those moments they probably could happily have gone without for a long time: The American Nazi Party joined the local adopt-a-road litter cleanup program, and the signs on that road went up. The public reaction was not a bit surprising to anyone, including the county commissioners themselves; the (Portland) Oregonian continues the story [Jan 2011 note: Unsurprisingly, the original OregonLive.com link is broken; the article by Ron Soble is repeated, apparently in full, at the bottom of this post at Portland Indy Media]:
Sometime early Friday afternoon, the sign closest to the Salem city limits on Sunnyview Road disappeared. Earlier in the week, someone damaged an identical sign about 3 miles down Sunnyview and county public works crews removed it.
The county signs -- among more than 100 in Marion County that mark volunteer efforts to clean up roadsides -- were particularly hard to see during the same week as the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, Schoenberg said.
The county has gotten dozens of complaints about its decision to post the signs.
Sam Brentano, chairman of the Marion County commission, isn't surprised. "We just look stupid," he said. "But maybe we are."
He was against the decision and may ask fellow commissioners to look into ways of tightening applications for groups seeking to adopt a road, he said.
"Everyone has a right to free speech, but I don't have an obligation to promote that right for them," he said. "I'd rather face the consequences."
James Sears, the county's public works director, said he got the application from the American Nazi Party about six weeks ago and consulted the county attorney about posting it. The staff doesn't routinely verify applicants listed on the one-page forms and didn't in this case other than to seek legal advice, he said.
County officials based the decision to go ahead with the signs on court decisions that upheld the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan to seek to put its name on a similar sign in Missouri.
The thing about defending free speech is, if it doesn't hurt at least a little, you're probably not doing it right. The test of whether speech is really free is always, alas, whether the speech that offends you most is protected.
So I have mixed feelings about this: If, indeed, the American Nazi Party operates in Oregon (information later in the article casts some doubt on that), it's a pretty sad thing. And seeing them get their names on public roadways at taxpayer expense is pretty unappetizing. Still, it's their right. And that means it's not good that someone -- prankster or genuinely offended community member -- vandalized the signs.
The solution to troubling free speech is not to invent more legal or illegal restrictions on it. Anyone who opposes the American Nazi Party should understand that. The solution is more free speech. With, perhaps, a little wit. So, pursuing one of my own favorite forms of protected speech -- the cranky letter to the editor -- I wrote the Oregonian:
To the Editor:
No matter how offensive the legal activities of a group like the American Nazi Party may strike any of us, the answer is not to shut down their speech, whether by denying them participation in the adopt-a-road program or vandalizing the signs with their organization's name.
The best solution is for the county commissioners to rename that stretch of highway the Simon Wiesenthal Parkway (or, if they prefer, the Rosa Parks Highway ). Put that sign up, put below it the sign announcing that the American Nazi Party keeps the ditches free of litter, and sit back to watch as free speech solves its own problem.