A TRICKY THING, that First Amendment of the Constitution. It protects plenty of things we’d like to know about and a lot we’d rather not.
The decision by the framers to single out the press as worthy of protection is the part that keeps me busy. And choosing what deserves protection and what’s out of bounds has become more complex in the digital world.
Consider the case of Kinderhook Councilwoman Sally Hogan. At a meeting last week the board adopted a motion condemning comments she had made on her Facebook page. Just the thought of venturing into that realm twists my stomach, but there’s no avoiding it.
I have limited skills with Facebook because I spend so little time in its clutches. My social media allergy leaves me unsure that what I see is a fair and accurate sample of what’s on someone’s page.
What I saw was on a page attributed to Ms. Hogan was a screen with a message saying, “New York Should Ban: Excelsior pass, Masks, Democrats. Open New York Now!”
I had to search on “Excelsior pass” to be reminded that it’s a state credential that says the bearer has been vaccinated against or tested for Covid-19. It’s voluntary, which is a good thing because the “pass” raises more questions than it answers. We may end up with viral status passports, but there lots to discuss before we do.
Banning Democrats? In New York State? It’s hard to consider that a credible threat at this point in time.
Banning masks would be about the best way to prolong the restrictions Covid-19 has thrust on us. That raises the question of whether her Facebook poster intentionally spreads disinformation or she doesn’t understand how this disease can still infect the large number of un-vaccinated people.
The poster’s text is an example of bad judgment and anti-social behavior. It’s also protected speech.
The other members of the board have a right to express their views too. It’s clear why they wanted to express in public their disapproval of her posts. They also wanted to remind the public that she does not speak for the town.
But government is different from an individual. It has power that individuals don’t. In this case it pits the resources of the people against an individual. It’s a power that should be used sparingly.
That doesn’t leave other members of the board with no options other than scolding her with a motion critical of her behavior. Sometimes that attention encourages the target to push the envelope of what’s acceptable speech more toward the extreme. A better approach might be to just affirm what the board believes. It’s obviously different from the statements of Ms. Hogan.
But also online is a petition at Change.org launched by Brandon Nelmes seeking enough signatures to remove Ms. Hogan from her seat on the board. The petition does not explain what legal process would achieve that goal.
The petition cites her comments on the #BlackLivesMatter demonstration on the Kinderhook village green last year, when she appears to have written that the demonstration was a partisan event in support of then presidential candidate Joe Biden. In what appears to be Ms. Hogan’s comments pasted on the petition website, she defends the slogan “All Lives Matter,” a provocative statement that ignores the disproportionate toll sanctioned violence takes on African Americans.
The last freedom protected by the First Amendment is the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievance.” But that doesn’t require government to agree to what petitioners want.
The only way to preserve our freedoms is to elect people dedicated to that goal. We don’t have to like Ms. Hogan’s hurtful statements to understand why we need to protect her right to express unpopular views. The antidote is to drown those views with better ideas and people in office to carry them out.