Calling all citizens

This is a call to duty. I take it as our duty in a democracy (or 'democratic republic,' if you like) to watch out for the next guy's right to speak freely. We do that instinctively when the next guy is saying things we like. I'm talking about something harder: making sure that people can air opinions that are senseless or offensive to us. That's a truer test of whether this of-the-people experiment has much life left in it. And it's not clear we're getting passing grades.

This is basic stuff. When angry protestors around the country made it their business this summer to stop people from publicly advocating single-payer health insurance, they reminded us we don't have a lock on the First Amendment. After tangling to a stand-still with a reader who hates the single-payer idea, I suggested in an August 15 column that "we drop our puny efforts to straighten each other out on health care and see if we can come together for something at least as important: keeping (or making) this country safe for the conversations self-government needs." That prompted another reader's response that left-leaning demonstrators have also shouted down opinions they don't like, which almost pulled me into the kind of partisan detour that obscures core principles screaming for our attention. Like: Whatever your cause, whatever your worldview or favorite "facts," we will not stand by and let anyone try to smother them.

I want to think that last summer's shout-downs faded partly because so many people rejected them as un-American (but then I want to think a lot of things). That front seems quiet now, but if you read past the big headlines it's not hard to find other stories that bring our commitment to free speech into question. This week one drifted in from the north, where a group called Protect Marriage Washington is trying to keep secret the names of people signing their petition to reverse a law granting more legal privileges to same-sex partners.

"Gay rights organizations demanded to see the petitions," according to an Oct. 24 Mail Tribune editorial (reprinted from the Eugene Register-Guard), "with some of them promising to post signers' names and addresses on the Internet ... Protect Marriage Washington's fear is that disclosure of the signers' names would result in harassment, intimidation or worse. The group argues that people who sign petitions should have a right to privacy, just as voters have a right to cast secret ballots." They persuaded a U.S. district judge to bar release of the names, "saying that making them public would chill petition signers' First Amendment rights."

The editorial slammed that reasoning: "Voters cannot sign petitions with the same expectation of privacy that they bring into the polling booth, because signing a petition is not the same as voting. The former doesn't necessarily indicate support for or opposition to a particular idea, but calls for the opportunity to vote on a matter of public policy ... Those who sign petitions are willing to stand and be counted — an act that means much less if people can't find out who they are."

I understand what both sides are saying, but the fact that it's come to this tells me something deeper is wrong. We — and "we" means those of us who support the right of homosexuals to marry and those of us who don't — have to make clear that we flatly refuse to accept harassment of anyone for signing any petition. That includes the most foolhardy, small-minded, hateful, unconstitutional, perverse, moronic cause you've imagined in your worst paranoid nightmare. Intimidating people for putting their name behind it is not OK.

That doesn't mean we give an inch if we want to fight any of these petitions or the ideas they push, and there are plenty of places to do that: the courts, the ballot box, legislatures and Congress, door-to-door canvassing and street-corner leaflets, rallies and demonstrations and petitions of our own, every kind of media up to and including this opinion page. There are some wacky and dangerous ideas floating around on clipboards out there that need to be pushed back — you pick yours and I'll pick mine. We don't bolster them a bit when we insist that other people have the right to sign up. If anything, the reverse might be true: One way to give spectacularly bad ideas more power and credibility is to give their advocates the chance to look persecuted.

In school most of us were taught (inaccurately, it turns out) that the French philosopher Voltaire said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Nobody's being asked to die here. The best way to keep things from going that far is to draw and defend this clear line in the sand: We don't punish people, and we don't let others punish people, for standing up for what they believe. Period.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at

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