Freedom of expression needs to be free for all

Should dissimilarities of opinion and lifestyle diminish support to voice certain issues?

Andrew Johnson

Whenever an individual or a group is restricted from doing something that seems harmless, we wonder why the authorities canâÄôt just let it happen. Recent issues locally and globally have gained attention and caused people to ask why certain freedoms, primarily speech, have to be compromised and what is being lost in doing so.

Tuan Pham, his wife and their 10 children moved to St. Paul from Vietnam in 1980. Over the course of nearly three decades, Pham and his family lived above a grocery store that they opened on University Avenue before moving into their new home along the Mississippi River bluffs in 2007.

Thus far, this seems like the makings of a touching immigrant tale of achieving the traditional âÄúAmerican dreamâÄù âÄî coming over with almost nothing, starting a business and buying a home as a testament to his hard work. Unfortunately, itâÄôs resulted in an unnecessary rude awakening.

About a year ago, Pham erected a 17-foot marble statue of Jesus in his backyard along the bluffs, overlooking downtown St. Paul. As a fifth-generation Catholic, he made the statue to serve as a replica of a larger version of a monument in his native country (âÄúI miss it, so that I want to bring it here,âÄù Pham said). However, a passerby happened to see the statue one day and anonymously brought it to the attention of the St. Paul City Council, prompting an inspection from the Zoning Board.

Lo and behold, following an assessment of the property, officials found issue with the statue: ItâÄôs too close to the bluff. As the Star Tribune reported, city code stipulates that development cannot take place within 40 feet of the bluff for safety reasons. PhamâÄôs appeals to the Zoning Board and City Council have been denied, but heâÄôs yet to get an official letter from the city asking him to move it back. Until then, heâÄôs leaving his statue where it is. Pham isnâÄôt alone in his efforts though; about 45 neighbors and residents have signed a petition supporting him.

Nevertheless, opponents of PhamâÄôs statue continue to back the cityâÄôs call to move it. It begs the question whether this anonymous tipster reported it because he or she was fully up-to-date on St. PaulâÄôs zoning ordinances and spotted the infractions from afar, or if a disagreement with the statueâÄôs representation and visibility triggered the report. In other words, would this person have reported the statue if it represented something he or she supported, or did the symbol itself affront the individual?

This sort of mentality is the same one that seeks to rename âÄúChristmas treesâÄù as âÄúholiday treesâÄù or gets upset when Hanukkah stamps are issued. Catering to those that raise issue with the expression of another point of view directly empowers that viewpoint over the other. It implies that the opponent of the belief must disagree with it more than the believers believe it, and therefore justifiably can, and should, be removed. Somehow, being considerate to the nit-pickers has come to weigh more heavily than the consideration for those that want to celebrate their way of life. The rationale is often to combat ideological influence, but it contradictorily does what it seeks to prevent.

Across the Atlantic, Muslims in France have also been on the short end of this obstinate version of âÄúimpartiality.âÄù In the last year, the traditionally secular French government has implemented two prohibitions against the Islamic faith: wearing the burqa and conducting public prayer. Starting last April, women now receive a $200 fine if theyâÄôre seen wearing a burqa. The latter ban requires Muslims to resort to specified areas to conduct their prayers.

These sorts of limitations arenâÄôt only applied to religious beliefs. Back in Minneapolis, the Occupy Minnesota encampment continues to endure restrictions. Over the past two months, demonstrators have had to comply with a number of systematic constraints from Hennepin County regarding what sorts of objects can remain in and be brought to Government Plaza due to the countyâÄôs dissatisfaction with the activists and their cause. Supporters of the movement view this as an impediment on their rights as citizens, limiting their ability to freely express themselves.

Agree or disagree with all, some or none of these causes, thereâÄôs no denying that it becomes a treacherous social order when a group not only feels limited in practicing and expressing its beliefs, but actually is limited. The only way that a freedom of expression can be universally upheld is if the standard of freedom is consistent throughout all beliefs and not just ones that we as individuals have picked and chosen to be meaningful and worth defending. The content of free speech can be inconvenient and disagreeable at times, but tolerating it ensures equal freedom for you. In some ways, as simplified as it may seem, keep in mind the Golden Rule: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.

Whether itâÄôs a 17-foot marble statue, a burqa or a foldout table at a demonstration, if weâÄôre comfortable saying one of these can be disallowed, then we have to be comfortable saying all of them can be. Can prohibiting any of these be selectively reasoned while still advocating a freedom of expression? âÄúI realize that if we want to have freedom, we have to obey the law,âÄù Pham said. The question becomes, what happens when those laws ask us to abandon freedoms, especially if itâÄôs not affecting us in that very moment? The reality is that it is, and eventually will, affect us.