Free speech at air show applies to all

Thursday, July 5, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The public’s view of the rights to free speech and expression as defined by the First Amendment ranges the entire gamut of beliefs, from the unfettered “anything goes” dictum of former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to the puritanical sentiments espoused by the other extreme. Naturally, the majority of us fall somewhere between the two; nevertheless, a definitive distinction may never be reached as seen in the proliferation of split decisions handed down by our judiciary, to include the Supreme Court.

Accordingly, we find divergent opinions on that which all of us consider our fundamental rights — those differences are not markedly affected by individual occupation nor education. From the school custodian to the university professor; from the street person to the legislator; from the beat cop to the erudite black-robed judiciary, whether it be the high, middle or low road, the path to individual rights remains muddy.

The ongoing dispute between the Salute to Veterans Corporation and the anti-war activist protesters over access to the airport tarmac to circulate petitions and leaflets is no different. Both factions believe fervently in their cause, which unnecessarily, in my opinion anyway, was escalated to the courts — an action that moved the problem from the arena of common sense closure to a never-never land in which there can be no winner.

Earlier this month, George Kennedy, an accomplished and respected journalist and former editor of the Missourian, wrote an editorial opinion siding with the protest movement. Critical of the city’s “conspiring with the Salute to Veteran’s Corporation” to violate the inalienable rights of free speech and expression of the protesters, his commentary was well intentioned and civil, accurately reflecting his opinion.

Sadly however, his “I’ve never attended the Air Show, but ...” evaluation renders him less than objective in perhaps an unintended but definitely inaccurate observation. Had Mr. Kennedy bothered to attend the air show, he would have learned that, far from forbidding the circulation of petitions and leaflets as alleged, the protesters have for years been provided access to every person arriving and departing the tarmac at the two gates through which all attendees must pass. Additionally, the Columbia Police Department was on hand to see that the petitioners were free from interference.

Would it not appear to a reasonable individual that, while the anti-war activist’s rights to free speech and assembly are inviolate, the sponsor of the event, being so disputed, should not be required also to provide its opposition with the platform for that debate? By providing activists double access to all attending the air show, the idea that this should extend also to the tarmac, an area for which the nonprofit Salute to Veterans Corporation is liable, is an antithesis not only to sound judgment but also the rule of fair play.

The application of common sense to this equation begs the following: “If the anti-air show faction enjoys established rights, as is unequivocally the case, do not those attending for its positive appeal possess the identical privilege?” I have attended this show every year since 1993 and I have yet to encounter anyone in attendance who came to see the protesters. After running the anti-war gauntlet both coming and going, is it too much to ask that those who come in support of our veterans be afforded unfettered observation of the only free civilian air show in the United States without being confronted with leaflets and petitions? Orchestrated by volunteers, the air show counts as one of Columbia’s and the nation’s most treasured attractions as the thousands upon thousands of attendees demonstrate annually.

Without question, the framers of the Constitution were so concerned with free speech that it was addressed in the First Amendment. However, I doubt seriously they intended it as a vehicle for a minority with ulterior motives to perpetrate a self-serving agenda at the expense of the majority.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached via e-mail at

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