OUR VIEW: Council, don't outlaw free expression

November 9, 2012
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We should not simply outlaw downtown begging and send it to some other part of town. City Council, please take a pass on this bad idea and dispense of it on Tuesday.

This column often criticizes those who wish to impose government-enforced freedom from the sights, sounds and annoyances of religion. We do so because this is a country founded on tolerance, which means we have to live with the annoyances of free speech. Atheists, we insist, must tolerate politicians and street preachers who ask them to accept Jesus as lord and savior. The atheist has a right to walk on by, but no right to government protection from messages considered offensive. Likewise, devoutly religious people have no right to protection from those who would denounce God in public, or from a government dais.

Our country was founded on a belief that government should protect offensive, irritating, radical and even frightening messages because the freedom to communicate comes from God. To challenge the First Amendment is more anti-American than burning a flag or passing laws against apple pie and baseball. Jesus befriended prostitutes and tax collectors. He never silenced them.

Respect for freedom is why some members of the Colorado Springs City Council feel funny about a proposed law that would use force to prevent one person from merely asking another for money. Council President Scott Hente said he “reluctantly” plans to support a begging ban the council might approve Tuesday.

Councilman, we respect your reluctance and will praise you from the rooftops for trusting that instinct and working to defeat this proposal. We’ll have a hard time understanding a reluctant vote in favor of an anti-American law.

If any form of speech is protected, it should be that of a person seeking help. Whether the plea is legitimate, or justified, is up to the listener to determine. To forcefully prohibit the communication should be considered an egregious violation of free speech.

We discourage begging, though a case can be made that asking for help is more respectable than demanding it through tax-funded programs. We have no issue with those who walk by and refuse to give, and we completely understand that some who beg are dirty, smelly and frightening.

We acknowledge that beggars keep some individuals away from commercial districts where honest, hard-working business owners pay employees and do their best to earn profits. Mayor Bach and the council have only the best interests of business people at heart, and we know it is not their desire to disenfranchise the poor. We understand this downtown dilemma and want it resolved.

Councilman Bernie Herpin, a man who fights for his constitutional right to keep and bear firearms — a right that some consider offensive and frightening — said women and the elderly should not have to encounter beggars when they visit downtown. OK, councilman, so where do we draw the line? Teenagers shouldn’t have to encounter messages that advocate tattoos, liquor, marijuana and sex. Yet our community bombards them with these messages each day, and we cannot simply pass a law against these sights and sound. Some white people are frightened when black men in hoodies approach them on sidewalks. We long ago abandoned the anti-American laws that prevented blacks from sharing space with whites.

To solve the begging menace, assign more foot-patrol cops to wander sidewalks downtown and in Old Colorado City. If beggars cause fear and discomfort to some members of our community, the presence of uniformed men and women in close proximity to beggars will go a long way toward creating an atmosphere of safety without violating anyone’s God-given right to communicate freely with others sharing public space.

Council members who feel odd about a ban on begging should feel good about themselves. Their trepidation only shows that they know, understand and respect the most fundamental protection afforded by our Constitution. Please do not disrespect this principle to create an illusion that city government can eliminate a common urban annoyance that will always be with us. Protect the American way and find a more practical and productive means of enhancing a sense of safety downtown. We cannot have freedom of speech while enforcing freedom from speech.

That's our view, so what's yours? Please begin or contribute to a Facebook discussion below this article.

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