Christopher Mead: Governor and mayor go too far to stifle free speech

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Police move in to make an arrest after a protest against police brutality turned violent in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

Over the weekend, the national protests against police brutality have reached Salt Lake City. Saturday, an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration attended by thousands turned violent, seemingly through the actions of a relatively small group of protestors. A police car was burned and messages painted on buildings throughout downtown.

While figures as esteemed as Martin Luther King have recognized that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” I will not be addressing the legitimacy of these actions here.

Instead, I would like to address the overreaction of both Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to these events.

In the case of Herbert, the decision to immediately call in the National Guard stands in troubling contrast to his slow and ineffectual response to COVID-19. During the ongoing pandemic, Herbert was hesitant to act and eager to offload responsibility. Utah never received a statewide health directive that had legal force. Instead, the governor was content to force county mayors to assume leadership, resulting in a patchwork response that is likely to have increased spread.

Herbert demonstrates none of this uncertainty when it comes to suppressing speech and protecting property rather than lives, however. Historically, deploying troops on the streets of American cities has been a strategy of very last resort — a tactic to be turned to only after careful deliberation and a sense of there being no other option. This unnecessary and rushed decision runs roughshod over a long tradition of leaving the military out of domestic affairs and embraces intimidation over engagement.

All of this is perhaps unsurprising from Herbert. A governor at the end of his second full term, Herbert’s strengths and weaknesses are well-known.

We are all still getting to know Mendenhall, however, and I am disappointed by her authoritarian response to these events, despite her liberal vocabulary.

While she took decisive actions in response COVID-19 that were effective and appropriate, the scope and intensity of curfew demonstrates incorrect thinking about how much control she ought to be able to have over her citizens in general.

Mendenhall has far too freely intruded on the right of the people to peaceably assemble. There is no evidence that further protests would have been uncontrollably violent, and the risk of such violence is one of the costs of living in a free society. For a state that prides itself on the freedom of its people, these actions, not the anguished cries of the disenfranchised on the streets of our city, are what is truly troubling.

Many Americans have complained — sometimes violently — about the supposed violation of their rights during the pandemic, yet here is a much more straightforward effort to suppress the constitutional rights of Americans to gather and speak freely.

The only question that remains is how we will respond.

Christopher Mead is an an assistant professor in the Honors College at the University of Utah. These views are his own and not necessarily those of the university.

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