By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 26, 2009; A23
"What is freedom of expression?" Salman Rushdie once asked. "Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." Ride a Metrobus in this city, and you'll see an example of what Rushdie is talking about.
Some Metrobuses are carrying advertisements paid for by Stand for Marriage DC, a group that opposes civil marriage for same-sex couples. The group wants to subject the District's recently passed law permitting same-sex marriage to a public referendum.
Offended by the ads, an opposing group, Full Equality Now DC, has demanded that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) remove the ads from Metrobuses on the grounds that they disrespect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) city residents. Full Equality Now asserts that the ads force GLBT people to "stare down discrimination as they board the bus to go somewhere or are even passed by an advertisement on the street." That, says Full Equality Now, targets D.C. residents on the basis of sexual orientation, in opposition to both common decency and the standards of nondiscrimination in WMATA's own policies.
"We do not deserve to face this message when we ride the bus," the group wrote in a letter to WMATA General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.
That Full Equality Now takes offense is understandable. But should the ads be taken down?
Fortunately, yet another group of citizens has weighed in on the issue.
The group includes Mitch Wood, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance; Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital; Jeffrey D. Richardson, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club; Aisha C. Mills, president of Campaign for All D.C. Families; and activist Richard J. Rosendall.
Unlike Full Equality Now DC, the group led by Wood and Spitzer has stepped forward to defend the freedom of expression of forces against gay marriage, even though those same forces have not done so for supporters of civil marriage equality.
In their letter to Catoe, the Wood-Spitzer alliance wrote: "As supporters of civil marriage equality, we also embrace the principle of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which makes our own advocacy possible. Indeed, the then-named Gay Activists Alliance thirty years ago won a court battle against WMATA for the right to place educational posters in Metrobuses with the message, 'Someone In Your Life Is Gay.' WMATA is a quasi-governmental body and is thus subject to the First Amendment. We, the undersigned, therefore urge you to reject the misguided censorship advocated by Full Equality Now DC."
Speaking not only for themselves but also for people like me, they said: "Free speech is not only for those whose beliefs we find acceptable. The proper response to offensive speech is more speech. Your proper response to Full Equality Now DC, therefore, is that those who object to ads by Stand For Marriage DC are free to place their own.
"Thank you for resisting pressures to favor or disfavor particular viewpoints, from whatever political direction they may come."
This year we have seen people take every opportunity to get things off their collective chests. No subject has been left untouched by public debate. Tea parties, town hall meetings, Internet chat rooms and the blogosphere have all served as forums for freewheeling speech as well as for launching all-out verbal assaults against perceived enemies. Some have even called for censorship of television personalities who express obnoxious views.
If Salman Rushie's definition is the standard, freedom of expression reached new heights in 2009 America. Folks have said what they like without penalty, but while expecting acceptance of only their expressed beliefs and ideas. Forget that "free exchange of ideas" stuff. Their views, and theirs alone, are expected to go unchallenged.
So it was heartening to see how some citizens reacted to the issue raised by the Metrobus advertisements. The conflict provided a good -- but rare -- example of citizens standing up for the principle of protecting despised speech of a disagreeable speaker. We owe them thanks for supplying the essential ingredient that has been missing in this year's freewheeling debates: tolerance.
And to think, it occurred in our nation's capital. First Amendment and freedom lovers should be proud.