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Jennifer Horn: Gilmanton is a sign of the state of free speech

March 07. 2018 12:04AM

A few weeks ago, Gilmanton officials got the dopey idea that they had the right to tell their neighbors that they could not post signs in their own yards expressing support for their local police chief. The town’s code enforcement officer sent out intimidating letters threatening fines of more than $200 a day if the signs were not removed.

I say dopey because they appear to have forgotten the founding principle of the First Amendment, and because they admit they consulted the town attorney about the idea the day after they sent the letter out.

There is a disagreement brewing in Gilmanton about just how accountable to the selectmen the police chief should be, a disagreement that will ultimately be decided in court. Some Gilmanton citizens placed signs in their yards expressing support for the chief that read “We support Gilmanton Police even if the Selectmen Don’t.” ACLU-NH called this attempt to silence dissent an “egregious” violation of the First Amendment, and I would add, a dangerous one.

The First Amendment is first for a reason; without it a free republic cannot endure. Our Founding Fathers came to America to escape not just religious persecution but thought persecution as well. The very concept of freedom of speech was revolutionary in a time when the consequences for expressing dissent with the monarchy were severe.

Free speech is about the free exchange of ideas and opinions and the unfettered flow of information. It is about not just the ability, but the right to express yourself openly without repercussion from the government. It remains a fairly unique idea even today. No other nation has the degree of protections for free speech that we have in America, not even our European friends. Nations like Iran, China, and North Korea imprison and execute people who dare express ideas that contradict the government.

We live in crazy political times, when people feel free to say the most offensive things to their neighbors, yell falsehoods from the rooftops, and can’t tell the difference between journalism and internet propaganda. Worst of all, we are becoming a dangerously intolerant society, attacking any expressed thought or opinion that differs from our own as if it were the foundation of evil. Silencing dissent has become a common political tool that is now being used in social, educational, and scientific circles as well.

Social media and 24-hour news outlets have contributed to the assault on free speech in our nation. So-called professionals yell their disagreement at each other, talking over those with whom they disagree and giving short shrift to the truth. On social media, our “friends” attack with insults and condescension simply for disagreeing with them.

There was a time when I accused the Democrats of being inherently intolerant, but in the age of Trump, many Republicans have joined them in their intolerance of differing beliefs. What I once proudly promoted as the party of ideas is fast being overrun by fanatical anger that refuses to hear, much less debate, any idea or philosophy that does not fall perfectly in line with Trump.

If we are to remain a free and democratic republic, we must embrace the idea that we are a nation of thinkers, of big ideas and unique philosophies that, even today, are not fully replicated anywhere else in the world. The free and open exchange of ideas and debate of contradicting philosophy, makes us stronger. No one has the right to be protected from hearing ideas with which they disagree. As a people we reject the idea of government having the right or authority to regulate what we can say, think or believe, and we should not presume to have that authority over each other either.

Gilmanton’s selectmen were quickly educated by their own attorney on the unconstitutional nature of the town’s attempt to silence their neighbors, but this dopey stunt was a good reminder to us all on the purpose and nature of the First Amendment.

Nashua’s Jennifer Horn is the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and is active in political and civic affairs.

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