News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 6, 2012

EDITORIAL: The right to be wrong

While freedom of speech is guaranteed, accuracy isn’t


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TERRE HAUTE — God bless the U.S.A.

There are too few countries in the world where citizens can express themselves in the manner in which Terre Haute resident Ed Willis has the past couple of months. From his front yard on South 19th Street, he leaves no doubt about his disdain for President Barack Obama.

Willis has erected a display featuring an image of a smiling Obama being crucified. Below the cross is a coffin, also with Obama’s image on it, bearing the words “Obama’s ballot box, send his socialism to the grave.”

Freedom of speech, one of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, is a wonderful thing. Indeed, railing against political figures and philosophies seems to be a national pastime, especially in a presidential election year. While Willis’ expression against the president is certainly offensive to some, he is well within his rights.

That’s not to say he’s escaped close scrutiny. Willis received a visit from the Secret Service, whose job it is to ensure the safety of the president, his family, and of other high elected officials. The agents determined there was nothing overtly threatening in the display and let it go at that. But the encounter has brought even more attention to the crass nature of Willis’ political yard ornaments.

For the record, Willis, a truck driver, was motivated by what he called an “executive order” from the president that he says adversely affects truckers’ work schedules.

Fair enough. Messing with a guy’s livelihood is sure to bring wrath your way, even though reasonable people can probably disagree on the issue without resorting to coffins and crucifixes.

But there’s an amusing twist to this tale. According to a trucking association fighting the regulation, Willis’ claim about Obama’s “executive order” is, ahem, false. As explained by our Arthur Foulkes in a story in Sunday’s Tribune-Star, the more strict trucking regulation that sent Willis to the wood pile to create his masterpiece was actually a product of the U.S. Department of Transportation, not a presidential executive order. Oops.

Facts are pesky things, and they can sometimes get in the way of a good rant. When it comes to political speech, the First Amendment gives an individual wide latitude. Accuracy is not required.

None of this may change Willis’ approach. The regulation that riles him does exist, although it’s not yet in effect. It did come from the president’s administration, if not directly from the president.

Willis, we suspect, isn’t the first to exercise his right to be wrong, at least in some aspects of his complaint. And he certainly won’t be the last. The First Amendment probably guarantees it.

God bless the U.S.A.