“We are resolved to protect individual freedom of belief. This freedom must include the child as well as the parent. The freedom for which we stand is not freedom of belief as we please, not freedom to evade responsibility, but freedom to be honest in speech and action, freedom to respect one’s own integrity of thought and feeling, freedom to question, to investigate, to try, to understand life and the universe in which life abounds, freedom to search anywhere and everywhere to find the meaning of Being, freedom to experiment with new ways of living that seem better than the old.”Sophia Lyon Fahs, 1876 – 1978
My husband and I were out of the country for the last three months, and during that time, we found ourselves removed from the daily badgering of media and politics intended to divide and sow hate across artificial lines. So, when we came back home recently, we found re-entry to be almost surreal and not as comforting as we had hoped.
We returned home to old and new neighbors. Just as we were leaving the country, one of the families on our street was moving to another rural town in Nevada that they hoped would be more compatible with their lifestyles. We already missed them before they left. Upon our return, we spotted the vehicle of our new neighbor, a single man in his 20s. We actually heard his presence before ever meeting him, which we hope to. He likes to play his hard metal music loudly, and my husband and I laughed, recalling our 20s, realizing we have turned into our parents.
As we were getting settled back, I noticed the prompt onslaught of differences simmered in every conversation with friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances, reminding me of one of the reasons we had opted for some time out to recall and practice one of our basic values: human kindness.
That value was tested for me in the last week or so. I chose to write about this experience because fundamentally, I feel it is as important for me to exercise my First Amendment rights and bear witness publicly and ethically, as I witness others doing so without regard for the consequences and impact it might have on others’ rights.
I was invited to meet and counsel a group of international visitors — young people between 18-24 years old — about bringing home lessons learned here in the U.S. and Nevada, to carry out community action projects where they live. I have been working with the Northern Nevada International Center (NNIC) for over twenty years and have cherished this work, as it represents who I am as a person and professional. This group, one of several I’ve worked with over the years, represented four nations: Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil and Nigeria. Collectively, they are all working on addressing the impacts of climate change in their communities.
Our first session ended with a sense of hopefulness and excitement as they shared their ideas for their projects. That is, until I was asked by the NNIC Director and their Washington, D.C. contact for the program to address an issue that had arisen during their visit to my hometown, Virginia City.
The group had come up the Sunday prior to our Fourth of July and encountered visible signs and verbal references about who was accepted here and who wasn’t. One of these “signs” was a card that a few of the visitors encountered in a bin at one of the merchants’ stores along C Street: Buzzard Creek.
The card was a “White Privilege” (WP) card noting its start and end dates as birth through death and the name “SCOT- FREE.”
The back side states, “This card grants its bearer happiness and success because it’s the color of your skin and not the choices you make that determine your abilities to be successful.”
Our guests were extremely distressed about this, trying to determine whether it represented the general feeling of the community — our community — or was a type of humor to which they had not yet been exposed.
Fortunately, they had a very compassionate and competent NNIC leader who brought them together in conversation to explore the issue, learn about the political and racial divides here and balance their perceptions with other experiences they were having during their visit. The U.S., Nevada, and our community of Virginia City, do not uniformly support this type of offensive and hateful thinking.
I apologized and promised to investigate further. So, I did some research to learn under what conditions the First Amendment does not apply, and it seemed like a good time to get a quick refresher course of the subject. As a reminder, here is the First Amendment as written:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”First Amendment, United States Constitution
As to when this amendment doesn’t apply, The American Library of Congress states, “Only that expression that is shown to belong to a few narrow categories of speech is not protected by the First Amendment. The categories of unprotected speech include obscenity, child pornography, defamatory speech, false advertising, true threats, and fighting words.”
As with so many things written, the meaning is gray. I did not turn to case law to determine whether the distribution (through possession and public sales) constituted “obscenity or defamatory speech” — much less “true threats.” Besides, my style, through my parents’ guidance and my professional training and my personal choices, is to deal personally first with someone to learn about their choices and whether they intended to cause harm.
My investigation took me further. I presented this information to our County Manager, with whom I have had conversations before about the culture of our town and the messaging we present to visitors, and have found him willing to listen and follow through. When I shared photos of the “WP” card, he said, in his words, “I don’t know of anyone who would find this appropriate.” He asked where this was being sold or distributed and I acknowledged I didn’t know, but would try to find out before I met with the group again.
I was headed to the Post Office after my visit to county offices and decided to drop in at a couple places near to where the visitor had said she remembered the card being sold. I struck out at the first one, but then moved up the plank way a bit further north and walked into the store that had signage as its main retail item — if not all of it. Looking around I found a bin with hundreds of cards tossed in it, but had no trouble pulling out the “WP” card that had been shared with me. The proprietor or staff member at the counter asked what I was looking for. When I said I’d found it, she asked if I needed more. I said no, then realized I needed to come forward with my purpose, but first asked if the card I was holding represented the views of the establishment.
She looked a bit puzzled and said, we sell all kinds of cards.
“It’s just funny.”
That was when I shared the experience of those from the international visitors group who had visited the store. She said that they have all kinds of offensive items, some funny, and that if people don’t like them, they don’t have to come back. I countered with the fact that unfortunately, an experience at her store could lead to the perception that this is how Virginia City feels, but she dismissed me again, indicating that it’s just perceptions.
I thanked her for her explanation, set the card down, and bid her goodbye (and declared silently to myself that it will be the last time I enter her store). I will ask others not to patronize the store either. She had suggested that as the solution, so I will take it seriously. So, before I proceed with any further observations of my homecoming, I ask you, the reader, do you think this card is just funny, or is it inappropriate? If you find this card offensive like I do, please do not patronize the Buzzard Creek establishment and warn any of your visitors to avoid it.
I communicated what I had learned to our County Manager to make sure he knew I had personally learned of and had a conversation with the staff member present. He thanked me and said he’d follow up.
Later in the week, my husband and I were dining on our deck, enjoying the last rays of the day and cooling air. Once again, as our neighbor pulled up to his house, we could feel the vibration of the music blasting from his car stereo…and then as it transferred to his home stereo. We were commenting about how this might go over with our other neighbors, and once again were grinning at the contradictions of age, reminded of the cranked-up radios and record players of our youth. I commented that “at least he doesn’t play it into the night.”
A patrol car came down our street slowly and we thought it was headed to the Sheriff’s residence at the end of the block, since in the past 40+ years of living here, it was rare to see any law enforcement patrolling our street. When it turned around and stopped at the corner, we both realized he was called out to discuss a “disturbance of the peace” issue with our neighbor.
I couldn’t help but note the irony in what constitutes disturbing the peace. Is it the music of our neighbor played loudly enough to fill the street and be heard by nearby neighbors and bring the police out or is it the offensive, hateful messaging on products sold by one of our merchants to the diverse set of visitors that come from around the world to learn about our history and spend a day to be welcomed and walk the wooden sidewalks?
The first brings the police out, a cost to taxpayers. The second is a protected First Amendment right.
We don’t believe in this country that we have clearly pinned down the meaning of the First Amendment, so there is a general consistent understanding among those here that it means our rights end when they infringe on others.
With that limited understanding, we really only have two options: treat others any way we want as long as it suits our needs, under the guise of freedom of expression; or treat others with dignity and respect, just as we hope to be treated.
I choose the latter, and still juggle with my own inner judgments and outward expressions, hoping to enter difficult conversations with respect and an open mind, while still staying true to my belief in the value of all humans: everyone matters or no one matters. EVERYONE matters.
I hope through this expression of my First Amendment rights that I have stood up for what I believe is a contradiction to that edict, while remaining civil and respectful.