Don’t Mess With Freedom of Speech

Published 8:22 am Sunday, February 7, 2016

This painting by Norman Rockwell expresses one of the most important freedoms Americans enjoy — the freedom of speech.

This painting by Norman Rockwell expresses one of the most important freedoms Americans enjoy — the freedom of speech.

Two Carter County commissioners were recently rebuked by a fellow commissioner and scolded by Mayor Leon Humphrey for attending a Watauga Commission meeting and offering their opinion on a recently approved measure establishing a new joint economic development board through an interlocal agreement.
Commissioner Robert Carroll asked the Commission Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Commission at its meeting this past week to consider instituting a rule or policy prohibiting commissioners from attending other government agency meetings and speaking against issues which had been approved by the majority of the Commission. Mayor Humphrey, a proponent of the ILA agreement, which originated from his office, questioned the ethics of the two commissioners — Brad Johnson and Mike Hill.
Whoa! This is Elizabethton and Carter County. Need we be reminded that this is where freedom began — where a group of rugged settlers, long hunters and Overmountain Men banded together to march across the mountains and take on the British in America’s quest for freedom. Wonder what this group of Revolutionary fighters would think about squelching
free speech?
Commissioner Brad Johnson represents the third district of Carter County on the Commission, which includes the City of Watauga. He had every right to attend the Watauga meeting and said he did not attack the ILA agreement, but simply told the Watauga governing body that he opposed it. Johnson said he also told the board he would support whatever decision it made.
The second commissioner, Mike Hill, who attended the meeting also, said he only expressed his opinion when the Watauga board invited him to do so.
The Carter County Commission narrowly passed the interlocal agreement by a vote of 13-9. In order for the agreement to work, the cities of Elizabethton, Watauga and Johnson City must sign on to the measure.
Neither Johnson or Hill did anything wrong, and their actions should not have been questioned.What was Commissioner Carroll thinking when he asked for “the stay away and shut up” rule?
We get a little jittery when local government officials start messing with freedom of speech.
Commission meetings are a component of good government. They should always be open to the public, and any resident should be able to stand up and voice an opinion at some point during the meeting. This is their right and it is something that should be encouraged as part of being a good citizen.
Every issue has more than one side, and every side needs to be heard, and its reasoning weighed. It’s alright to disagree.
This is what democracy is all about. It is a process that has served us well for more than 200 years and we don’t think any local official should be monkeying around with it.
In one of his most beloved illustrations, Norman Rockwell portrays a man standing up at a town board meeting to express his views.
According to Rockwell, he was seeking inspiration for pieces of work that would echo the 1941 Congressional address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he spoke of a post-war world founded on the freedoms of speech, religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
He happened to attend a town meeting near his then Arlington, Vt., home, where a man addressed the board and audience with an unpopular view. That night, the light of inspiration hit Rockwell, and he went on to create the iconic quartet of paintings. A copy of this painting for many years hung on the wall of former Star Publisher Frank Robinson’s office.
In the painting, a solitary figure stands tall at a town hall meeting. He is wearing a checkered flannel shirt and brown jacket and has the rough hands of a laborer.
The painting shows all eyes on the speaker as he practices his right of free speech.
Those in attendance may not agree, but he is allowed to speak.
Though the town board is out of sight, the painting infers it is giving the gentleman a chance to speak without interruption and scowling.
It would seem they, too, are listening to what the speaker has to say, much like those in the audience.
One of the freedoms we have is the right to challenge our government.
Free speech should be zealously guarded by us all, even if it is inconvenient for those who serve.

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