We Don’t Like Oswalt’s Message: So, Now What?

We will just admit it, our offering two pages of real estate to Andrew Oswalt was not a unanimous decision – and there is nobody at this paper that supports his ideas. On the other hand, many of us believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that putting Oswalt’s thoughts in the full light of day offers valuable prophylaxis that cannot be achieved with a sweep under the rug.

In short, staffer views differ over Oswalt’s significance: some seeing him for a merely lugubrious triviality, and others seeing him as a harbinger of intimidation, dangerously normalized. 

This range of viewpoints also extends to the severity of District Attorney charges levied against Oswalt, currently facing both felony intimidation charges, and misdemeanor mischief charges. Oswalt, you will recall, targeted attendees of a Standing Up for Racial Justice chapter meeting at the South Co-Op community room last year, affixing bumper stickers to their cars saying, “Racism is a horrible disease. You catch it from n*****s.”

Staffers believing the DA overcharged maintain…

The ACLU, one of the last, organized defenders of free speech in this country, has a very clear legal position on what kinds of speech are protected. They address the question of whether hate speech is protected specifically. The simple answer is, yes, hate speech is protected. The ACLU writes, “The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content.”

Recently, we, as a nation, have been protesting everything from Citizens United, to Dakota Access pipelines and Occupying Wall Street to further the cause of social and economic Justice. We have been fomenting minor rebellions in order to convince a skeptical, white majority that Black Lives Matter, that women are human beings, that corporations aren’t people, and that native peoples deserve to have control over their own land. People are being arrested, jailed, beaten, and killed for asserting their right to dissent. We cheapen this effort, and weaken the First Amendment, when we start charging people with felony speech crimes for offensive bumper stickers.

Staffers believing the DA’s felony charge are appropriate say…
If Oswalt had restricted his free speech to his own bumper or offered the stickers to anyone that wanted one for their own car, there would be no charges. The problem comes with Oswalt affixing his message to the cars of others without their consent, essentially usurping their free speech rights as his own.

Oswalt could easily foresee his actions would intimidate most drivers, chilling their decision to continue using their own car, given the message he had affixed. But most damning are the drivers he targeted: meeting attendees of a particular group with which he would an axe to grind. This latter consideration removes any reasonable doubt that he had intended to intimidate.

District Attorney John Haroldson did not return calls or respond to visits to his office seeking comment regarding the Oswalt case.

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