“Gimme a dollar.” This phrase, uttered constantly on sidewalks throughout the country, represents free speech. It is a request, or perhaps an impolite demand, for cash. It is no different from a political candidate or a charity executive asking for money. It is practical and/or political speech and is protected either way. Political? It conveys potential economic disparity and an effort toward equality, for better or worse. It is 100 percent protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Any law or court ruling — any exploitation of any loophole — that attempts to infringe upon the ability of one person to ask another for money violates the most fundamental limitation of government authority.
Free speech has limitations. To cite a tired example, one has no right to intentionally cause panic by shouting “fire” in a crowded theater with knowledge that nothing is ablaze. We don’t allow this because the resulting panic may cause physical harm or death. One has no right to violate community decency standards with communication that is extreme to the point of absurdity. In other words, the community will tolerate pornography up to a certain point.
Aside from extraordinary abuse, our society tolerates speech. We protect expressions of love and hate, belief and disbelief. We tolerate ugly, annoying and hurtful messages for the sake of embracing and defending free speech. Sometimes, doing so comes at a price.
Downtown businesses have complained to city officials that Occupy Colorado Springs protesters scared customers away. Business owners, in communities throughout the United States, complain that beggars scare patrons.
We certainly sympathize with their concerns. Small business owners are the backbone of the local and national economies. Our community’s quality of life depends more on the welfare of small businesses than on anything else.
The reaction some potential customers have to beggars and protesters cannot be solved at City Hall. The mayor and City Council cannot ban reasonable forms of communication, such as “give me money,” on public property — or relegate these expressions to specified zones — without making a mockery of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is neither practical nor comfortable. It is extraordinarily inconvenient, especially to those with money and power.
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Mayor Steve Bach has directed City Attorney Chris Melcher to research the possibility of free speech zones that would corral political protests and begging into “free speech” zones. If enacted, opponents of “free speech” zones would have to assemble against them in, you guessed it... “free speech” zones that would be largely out of sight and mind.
We understand and respect why Mayor Bach would research possible resolutions to concerns expressed by local businesses. With great respect, Mayor Bach, we hope you and the city attorney scrap “free speech” zones as a bad idea. Accept that government cannot protect us from the annoyance and the cost of free speech. Freedom cannot exist in a confined space, defined by a government that is supposed to defend liberty and justice for all. — Wayne Laugesen, editorial page editor, for the editorial board. Friend Wayne on Facebook; follow him on Twitter.
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