Protect everyone's rights

Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2001

The following editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on June 9:

Now that the mayor has stepped deeper into censorship and abuse of power by reaffirming his decision to ban the gay pride exhibit at Loussac Library, let's also hope the sponsors head for a court of law to vindicate and protect all our rights. And let's hope, finally, that everyone who cares about freedom of expression and libraries as a place of learning adds their voice in the court of public opinion.

The mayor went deeper into the quagmire Thursday when, after speaking with exhibit sponsors and examining its content, he affirmed his ban on the exhibit and ordered his legal department to develop a consistent policy on exhibits and advocacy in public facilities.

His explanation was a patently flimsy pretext. He continued to act like someone who thinks it's his job to decide what American citizens can or cannot see.

The mayor hung his reasoning on separation of church and state, pointing out that the Metropolitan Community Church is one of the exhibit sponsors. It's a specious argument, since he didn't say the exhibit carried a religious message, since he didn't bring it up earlier in discussions with the church and other sponsors, and since it's a misapplication of the First Amendment anyway. The First Amendment doesn't say churches can't speak out at public facilities; it says the government can't do the speaking for them.

So let's be clear about what's already happened: The mayor abused his authority and is continuing to do so for as long as he prevents the exhibit from appearing. He's acting like a cop who shoots at a perfectly law-abiding driver and then calls for a review of the department's policy on deadly force. The problem is the abuse of authority, not the lawful driving. Ordering up a new policy to govern such things does not cure the abuse already committed.

We hope the volatile nature of the battle surrounding this display will not drive the mayor to circle the wagons and cut off communication with the city's gay and lesbian citizens. We need more, not less, communication on these matters.

But we do not need to compromise on fundamental American rights. The First Amendment emphatically does not give mayors - or city council members, or legislators, or governors, or even presidents - the authority to restrain the presentation of exhibits at the library or any other public space. The First Amendment, and a huge body of law and tradition all over the United States, is intended to do the opposite - to give all Americans the freedom to express themselves without fear that a misguided mayor may stop them.

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