The Memorial Day weekend air show has become a Boone County tradition. I’ve never attended, but I’ve always thought it was a nice way to get people out to trample the grass growing on the runways of Englewood International Airport. The patriotic, even militaristic, nature of the activities hasn’t bothered me much. What always did bother me, though, was the unconstitutional censoring of protesters’ First Amendment rights. It was not only illegal, but also unwise, for the city of Columbia to conspire with the air show organizers to forbid a hardy handful of antiwar activists from handing out leaflets and circulating petitions.
So back in 2004, when the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city and the Salute to Veterans Corp., the organizing group, I thought the defendants would lose and would deserve to lose. For once, I was right on both counts. As you’ll recall, Columbia’s own federal Judge Nanette Laughrey first issued a temporary injunction, in 2005, and then in 2006 made the injunction permanent.
It wasn’t a complete victory for free speech, because for some reason I’m not smart enough to understand, Laughrey said the protesters named in the suit, veteran activists Bill Wickersham and Maureen Doyle, should be allowed to pass out their leaflets but couldn’t collect petition signatures.
Despite that, it was a big step in the right direction. Both the city and Salute to Veterans wrong-headedly appealed. Expensive mistake. It’s one thing to be stubborn in defending your principles. I’ve occasionally been accused of that myself. But when the principle at issue is so clearly indefensible, stubbornness becomes a costly vice.
That turned out to be the case when in March, the federal Court of Appeals upheld Laughrey’s decision. The court has also ordered that Salute to Veterans pay the ACLU’s legal fees and costs, which so far add up to more than $200,000. The meter continues to run because the organization has now decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
(Apparently, the city’s contract with the group relieves the city of any part of the lawyers’ bill. Still, I thought it was kind of funny when City Attorney Fred Boeckman complained that the ACLU’s St. Louis attorney charges $400 an hour and noted that the city’s advocate was only charging $110. Maybe this is one of those situations where you really do get what you pay for.)
At least the city finally had the good sense to drop out of this whole misguided appeal process. I’d like to think that’s because of a belated recognition that governments not only can’t but shouldn’t participate in restricting citizens’ rights to speak freely, especially on topics as important as war and peace.
Now Salute to Veterans should do the same. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan wrote a piece the other day that made the point eloquently. He noted that the right to dissent is one of the most important glories of America that our military serves to defend. As a lower-case veteran myself, though one who never heard a shot fired in anger, I think Bill had it right.
Some battles are better lost.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian.