George Pyle: Utah gets its censorship exactly backwards

(Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Health) State health officials are distributing Utah-themed condoms statewide as part of an HIV awareness campaign.

“Those who are easily offended need to be offended more often.”

-- Mae West

For most of my life — most of the nation’s life — fights over First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press were mostly about whether or not the government had any business telling some individual or organization that they were not allowed to say or print something.

National security. Obscenity. Libel. Stuff like that. A lot of mostly thin and self-serving arguments that people couldn’t handle the truth so the government had to step in to help hide it. For our own good, you understand.

In the last few years, though, the threat to democracy hasn’t just come from attempts to limit free speech. It’s come from free speech that is false — the flood of bald-faced lies spewing from Fox News, Facebook, Russian bots and Macedonian bloggers.

Because enough of us, especially in the media, still don’t want government stepping in and putting limits on just how many lies anyone can tell, or even determining what is and isn’t false, turning the matter over to the state is not a popular option.

After all, the birds who wrote the Bill of Rights lived their whole lives in an atmosphere where media was unabashedly partisan and no educated person expected any one news source to be even-handed or devoted to the search for truth. The founders thought — they hoped — we could handle it. Because the alternative — government-licensed media and widespread censorship — was obviously worse.

So it is a bit nostalgic to run into a couple of instances in just the last several days where questions of free expression are centered on whether the government should be limiting the speech of others. Even when the speaker being limited is also government.

We have seen offensive speech intended to hurt people has been left alone, while a ribald effort to save lives has been called back. Typical.

First is the matter of the clown who has been driving around Salt Lake City and Tooele with a Utah personalized license tag that says, “DEPORTM." On the reasonable assumption that that is License Tag Latin for “deport 'em,” and is meant as a call for human beings who didn’t have the good judgment to be born here to be evicted, then it is reasonable that some have objected to the state issuing such a tag.

Letters on a Utah license plate are not supposed to spell out anything racist, sexist, obscene or otherwise offensive. As this sentiment is clearly racist, it ought not be allowed. You can a have all the white nationalist bumper stickers or xenophobic window stick figures you like on your own car. But the license tag belongs to the state and, to a degree, speaks in its name. There are limits.

One person who complained to the state office in charge of such things was told the owner would be contacted and the plate recalled. But, if that call was ever made, nothing changed. State officials aren’t really sure which bureaucratic gopher hole the matter fell into.

As an old headline writer, I’m inclined to wonder if we might be misreading this bit of metal. It is easy to run out of room in a limited space, so maybe we should read this tag as meaning “DEPORT ME.” Like ginormous headline The Onion satirical newspaper wrote for the day World War I erupted: “WA-.” (I guess the "R" was on Page 3.)

Then there are all those condoms.

The Utah Department of Health, as part of a new HIV awareness effort (I was about to say, “HIV awareness push”) ordered 100,000 of them in special message wrappers. Some were straight-forward public service announcement fare, like “Get the test to live your best.” Others were more, well, out there.

Playing on Utah tropes and icons, there were wrappers that said things such as “Uinta sex?” or “This is the place,” over a drawing of a bed or “Greatest Sex on Earth.” The point, clearly, was to attract attention, get people talking, and thinking, and being more aware of the risks -- not just HIV -- that accompany unprotected sex. Unquestionably a good idea and, measured by how it got people talking, successful.

For about a day. Until Gov. Gary Herbert ordered the health department to abstain from distributing the condoms and the health department itself issued a cringe-worthy apology for “the lewd nature of the branding.”

It is no violation of the First Amendment for the government to censor the government. Just, in this case, foolish and cowardly.

Or is it?

If the point is to get people talking, then an official objection to the campaign is likely to draw more attention than the campaign alone. The, ahem, in-and-out nature of the story was enough to get it noticed by, among others, The Washington Post, CNN, newspapers in Texas, Kansas and Kentucky, The Guardian and the BBC.

So did the campaign raise awareness? Unquestionably. Of HIV. And of Utah.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, may be too intelligent to be easily offended. Or too lazy.


Twitter, @debatestate