Free speech is as fundamental to democracy as the right to vote because it preserves the free flow of ideas necessary for wide-spread political participation. To this end, it is not enough to reject censorship. The principles behind freedom of speech require us to support an environment that encourages all Americans to openly voice their opinions.
When A&E suspended Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson for expressing his sincere beliefs about sex and marriage, it undermined the free flow of ideas and chilled the right to free speech. Seeing someone come under attack for merely voicing an opinion puts pressure on the like-minded to stay quiet; and silencing a group of people, whatever their inclination, is never good for a democratic government.
If you are reading this, you may be wondering what drove me to begin writing on Anaheim. In fact, it was the assault on free speech perpetrated by Councilwoman Kris Murray and the former mayor/mega-lobbyist Curt Pringle. The two purported Republicans teamed-up with OC’s Democrat leadership to exploit hate speech in a combined effort to dirty the image of Mayor Tom Tait. The left was motivated by Mayor Tait’s embrace of pension reform, while Pringle and Murray threw the Constitution under the bus in order to score political points and distract public attention away from the Angles Stadium lease negotiation.
The incident arose when Mayor Tait started asking questions about the City’s surprise move to change the terms of an agreement whereby Angels owner, Arte Moreno, leases Angels Stadium and the surrounding land. The Council Majority retaliated by stripping the mayor of his power to place items on the council meeting agenda. Councilwoman Lucille Kring maintains that the power was removed so as to prevent Mayor Tait from repeatedly placing the controversial lease on the council agenda. Shortly thereafter, Kris Murray was asked to explain the callous, purely political, rule change. She opted to change the topic and attack the mayor with the accusation that he was complicit in hate speech against the Jewish and LGBT communities.
The coordinated attack on the Mayor was based on insincere criticism of how he handled a speaker during the public comment period of the previous week’s council meeting. William Denis Fitzgerald, a City Hall gadfly long known to be outrageous and offensive, went on a rant and declared that “evil Jews” were responsible for anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Fitzgerald then ended his speech with a homophobic slur. At that time, Mayor Tait responded by saying that while the speaker has free speech rights, the comments “crossed the line.” Contrary to Murray’s telling of the event, no council member made a statement condemning the offensive remarks. Despite the fabricated outrage, Mayor Tait has been completely vindicated in how he handled the sensitive issue.
The night of Fitzgerald’s rant, Todd Priest of the lobbying firm Curt Pringle & Associates contacted Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom, who is Jewish, and told her of the incident. The next day, he contacted the Orange County Human Relations Commission and blamed Tait for allowing hate speech at the council meeting. On the same day, Murray also wrote to the Commission urging the director to “review the matter and provide guidance on this very important issue.” She explained:
“While I would be the first to defend freedom of speech. . . . I also believe that the Mayor’s inaction was shameful, and, frankly, untruthful. He could have taken proactive action as the presiding officer to gavel the statements disrespectful and out of order, use the dais mute button, or request access to stop this hate speech.”
Shortly thereafter, Murray appeared alongside Mayor Tait on SoCal Insider to discuss the Angels Stadium lease and the removal of the mayor’s power to set the agenda. Deflecting the issue, Murray brought up Fitzgerald’s rant and said Mayor Tait should have used his authority to stop Fitzgerald’s tirade. She also insinuated that Fitzgerald and Mayor Tait are political allies. In turn, Henry Vandermeir, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, condemned Mayor Tait and demanded an apology.
Observing all this from the sidelines, I was disgusted. Not only did Kris Murray and Curt Pringle aim to silence dissent and undermine free speech, but they did so solely to score political points. If the lack of sincerity is not obvious, consider Murray and Pringle’s response, or lack there of, to the Cunningham Blog Controversy, where Latinos were the victims of hate speech at the behest of their ally, Todd Ament and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. The conflicting responses highlights the problem in censoring “hate speech.” What is hateful is in the eye of beholder and politicians will find it too easy to exploit the issue for their own purposes.
Ultimately, the ginned up controversy had a chilling effect on free speech. Seeing Mayor Tait come under attack, will elected officials in a similar position feel pressure to remove speakers during public comments when their rhetoric could be interpreted as hateful? Public comments may not always have substantive value, but they are critical to the democratic process. Giving the public at-large a forum to sound off allows people to voice concerns and vent frustrations, even if the speaker does not articulate their grievance in a manner that is intelligible or politically correct.
It is very troubling that Kris Murray and Curt Pringle failed to appreciate the serious consequences of their bi-partisan conspiracy. As purported Republicans, they should possess a better understanding of our Constitution and the principles of limited government. Of course, that is assuming that they are interested in governing with principles.