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