The test of free speech is whether you can say what you want to say when other people — including politicians — disagree with what you’re saying. When government bodies start voting to demand that you shut up, something has gone dreadfully wrong.
There’s apparently a matchmaking service called Arrangement Finders, but it’s a bit different from most online dating services. This outfit specializes in matching an “Established Man” with a “Perfect Princess,” in the words of the site. Is it dating or is it glorified prostitution? I can’t tell for sure, but it looks to me as though it’s really a legitimate service for men and women who are looking for others to fill a specific role.
An ABC News story says that men pay a monthly fee to the service and women join for free. It’s apparently been controversial in other cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles. The site’s FAQs say your profile will be deleted if you advertise any kind of escort services.
I’d never heard of the service, but the company did something smart. It placed one billboard in Birmingham, about a mile from the airport, in a rundown part of town where billboards are probably cheap. And then outraged local people — and pandering politicians — gave them all the free publicity they could possibly want.
Last week, the Jefferson County Commission voted to ask the company to remove the billboard. Commission president David Carrington played the “it’s for the children” card when he told the Birmingham News why the billboard should come down.
“The billboard is inconsistent with the values that most people in Jefferson County hold and I think the one thing the residents of this state and this county are concerned with are our children,” Carrington said, “and I think anytime someone tries to hurt our children … we say, ‘not here.'”
It’s unclear which “children” Carrington is talking about, but that always plays well with outraged people, so it makes political sense — even though he and the other commissioners had to know their vote was meaningless.
If you really want to keep children from hearing about it, maybe you should shut up about it, rather than talking about it and talking about it, generating a series of newspaper and television news stories. The people who own the service had to have been delighted with all the free advertising that came with just placing one billboard in a cheap part of town where few people would have seen it.
“There is First Amendment freedom, but this stands in a negative manner,” Roberson told the Birmingham News. “We’re just not going to accept this type of advertisement in the city of Birmingham.”
If you can figure out what the first part of that quote means, you let me know, because the words don’t make much sense in English. What he seems to mean, though, is something like this: “I know people have the right to free speech, but that shouldn’t apply when we don’t like what they say.”
Government bodies have no business paying official attention to billboards, much less asking companies to remove them. Legally and morally, people have the right to speak freely. Pragmatically, talking about it just helps the company. I would have never heard of this service if it weren’t for the drumbeat of local news stories about how evil it is. How much do you want to bet that the company is laughing all the way to the bank?
Neither the City Council nor the County Commission will force the billboard to come down, but it shows you how little these politicians — and the angry people who prompted the political action — think of free speech.
Tolerance of free speech is easy when we approve of the things people say. The test of whether we really believe in free speech is whether we’re willing to ignore it when people say things we don’t approve of. By that test, there are a lot of people around here — including politicians — who don’t really believe in freedom of speech.
Update: The Birmingham City Council unanimously passed a resolution today calling for the billboard to come down. Roberson’s attitude is summed up in this comment to the Birmingham News: “We’re not going to tolerate derogatory advertising in the city of Birmingham.” The resolution has no teeth, but it’s very clear that these politicians don’t want to tolerate speech they disapprove of.