Pondering Free Speech at a Decorous Town Hall

Our Joan Melcher visits a town hall featuring Barack Obama and reflects on the nature of free speech.
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The right of free speech is getting a workout this summer.

The debate surrounding legislation to reform health care has made it to every corner of America, with news coverage showing citizens in heated confrontations with their political leaders.

Amid all the noise, a question arises: Is it free speech that's being exercised or just attempts to drown out the speech of the other?

Citizens are taking politicians to task in town halls across the country in angry confrontations and shout-downs. Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter was castigated by a constituent in a town meeting in Lebanon, Pa., Sen. Claire McCaskill met with similarly hostile constituents, as did several other members of Congress, including Montana's Sen. Max Baucus, who sits squarely at the crux of the health-care debate as chairman of the Senate's Finance Committee. And on Wednesday, Massachusetts' Rep. Barney Frank, at a town hall meeting on health care, openly sparred with an attendee who wanted to talk about why the congressman supported Obama's "Nazi Policy" replying, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

Crowds at Obama town halls have generally been more civil, with people giving deference to the office, although a man attended a New Hampshire meeting with a loaded handgun strapped to his leg and about a dozen people arrived at an anti-Obama rally in Phoenix Monday carrying firearms (apparently as part of a stunt organized by Ernest Hancock, credited as the "Ron Paul r3VOLution logo designer). Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, described the phenomenon in an article for the Washington Post. He wrote that the "crazy tree" always blooms in American when political change suggests a liberal ascendancy.

Pro and anti forces swirled in an eddy of signs and bullhorns last Friday as President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting near Bozeman, Mont., population 27,000. The presidential visit drew about 1,300 to an airport hangar for the meeting and nearly an equal amount of demonstrators to an open field nearby.

The anti forces had a water-tanker brought by the Tea Party group of Bozeman with a loudspeaker that exhorted people to rise up to assure their freedoms; to the side of them proponents joined a leader with a handheld bullhorn: "Hey, hey. Ho, ho. The status quo has got to go," they shouted.

Back at them came another chant: "Hey, hey. Ho, ho. The Chicago thug has got to go."

Each side was making some noise, with the anti forces strongest because of the loudspeaker, but when standing in a seam of the eddy, that hypothetical separation of waters, it was an undecipherable cacophony, and somehow it was peaceful.

Inside, Gov. Brian Schweitzer had taken to the podium prior to the appearance of the president and said, "In Montana, we can be disagreeing on things, but we are never disagreeable." News reports have the crowd roaring with approval, and the discussion, although it included a few pointed questions, remained cordial.

Protesting Montanans seemed largely of the same mind. No one showed up carrying a gun as had one man at the New Hampshire town hall, but two people did attend on horseback.

A First Amendment scuffle had arisen in another part of the state a week prior when a Republican precinct committeewoman carried a sign that said, "No Mo' Bro'" at the Stevensville Creamery Picnic parade. Stevensville is in the Bitterroot Valley, a Republican stronghold, but the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee asked the woman to step down, saying the sign was clearly racist, and her opinions and views did not reflect the party's platform.

"What does free speech mean to you?" a middle-aged woman parading a large American flag through the area dominated by the pro-Obama forces was asked. "That's why I'm here," Karen Tuck said. "People should be responsible for themselves. Obama is rushing things through. People should take care of their own. We used to do that."

The signs were creative and for the most part homemade: Obama: If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong; Mr. President: Most thinking, civil, concerned Americans are with you; Stop Big Government; Don't Tread on Me; Jesus Loves Obama. After a while, Rush Limbaugh could be heard from the Tea Party's loudspeakers.

Opponents of health reform began infiltrating the group of reform supporters, who for the most part, treated them like they'd treat difficult relatives at a holiday gathering — tight smiles and nods. There wasn't a lot of verbal exchange, with signs doing most of the talking, but the tone was civil.

When asked if the noise from the loudspeaker bothered her, Terry Minow of Boulder said, "I think it's fine. It's good for everyone to have a voice. The majority of Americans favor health care reform. The only problem is if people try to drown out the voices of others."

Minow, a rancher, was holding a sign that said, "Montana Cowgirls for Health Care Reform." As she was talking, another woman came by and said she was a cowgirl, too, and she wasn't for Obama's socialist agenda. Minow smiled politely.

When asked how she felt free speech was faring, Marguerite McLarty, a single-payer proponent, was similarly upbeat: "We're sure exercising it," she said, adding she had seen civil conversations between both sides.

Talking to several of the Tea Party protesters, certain themes arose. The main one: They had a permit for the corner of the field, and the Obama people had unlawfully taken that spot. (Later a police officer reported that both had permits for the area, and the Obama people arrived first.)

Several said they would never have been allowed in the town hall meeting to exercise their free speech because of their views. Janet Fronson was one who thought free speech at the town hall was the domain of Obama supporters.

She said she had heard about half of the tickets to the town hall had been reserved for supporters, and when she called to get a ticket, there were none left. When asked if she had lined up outside the city halls of Belgrade or Bozeman on Thursday to get a ticket (as had been announced Tuesday) she said she hadn't known about that because she only gets a Sunday newspaper.

A retired police officer, Fronson recently moved to Roundup from Florida. She said she was very happy with the exercise of free speech at the gathering. "I have no problems with people who believe different from me," she said. "That's why Baskin Robbins has so many flavors of ice cream."

But she did believe that Obama was just "preaching to the choir" at the town hall.

Fronson said she's against "government-sponsored health care" because "12 million illegal aliens" will be covered. "They should come in the front door, follow the rules and work," she said, adding she thinks government should help people "who are genuinely hurt." She said she believes "there isn't going to be any Medicare in eight years."

Mike Mosolf, a self-employed investor from Dillon, held a large sign with several messages, on front and back, the most prominent being, "GOP scare tactics and lies — the American Taliban." He said he'd had a good experience exercising his right of free speech. "There's been some mild shouting down," he said. "But I've had plenty of room to get my message out."

An older, well-dressed woman from Helena held a sign that showed Obama with the Hitler moustache that's become emblematic of health care reform protesters. "Why do you think Obama is like Hitler?" I asked. "He's trying to dictate. I don't think they have a clue what they're doing. They need to listen to the people who voted them in."

A woman wearing a green hard hat (in support of green jobs) watched as another woman passed by carrying a sign that said, "Obama's Health Plan - Grandma Dies." The woman called out, perhaps not loud enough for the other to hear: "The insurance company dumped my grandma, but Medicare picked her up."

Michael Waddelton was wearing a Stetson hat with tea bags hanging down from the brim. He said Obama was just coming to Montana to take his family on a vacation and he resented the use of taxpayer dollars. "We have the right to assemble and protest, and we're doing it," he said. "I'm very upset about socialism. He's taken over the banking system, the car industry, and now he wants to socialize health care. He believes he's the king."

Protesters hoping for a glimpse of the motorcade lined up along a barbed wire fence separating the field from the airport road, but the rudder of Air Force One emerging from behind the airport hangar nearly a mile away was as close as they were going to get to the president.

As the time for the town hall neared, both camps made swirls into the others' areas, and a bit of pushing and shoving ensued. A good old Montana thunderstorm put the damper on any possible melee. Small balls of hail heralded a five-minute drenching, enough to send about half of the gathering to their vehicles.

Dan Hornback retreated to his pickup truck, which he has retrofitted to a camper that resembles a sheep wagon. His sign, "You Were Elected to Protect Our Rights, Not Violate Them," was stowed out of the rain under the truck, and a radio on the ground carried Obama's voice addressing the crowd inside the airplane hangar.

I stopped briefly to hear the address, and Hornack emerged from the back of his camper. "Are you looking at my sign?" he asked. "Yup," I said, "and listening to your radio. What did you think of the event today?"

"I've been to four tea parties, including one here, and there weren't as many people at this one," he said.

Looking into the dark of the camper at Hornack, I saw a set of eyes starring back at me and after a beat, realized they were part of the very large face of a very large dog. The dog's head was about twice the size of Hornack's, and he was watching me intently over his human's shoulder.

"Is that dog part wolf?" I asked. "No, pure German shepherd," came the reply. Soon the dog was able to work his way past Hornack and leapt to the ground, where he sat with his legs out toward me, watching.

Hornack, a handsome, slight, middle-aged man, lives in the camper in the Bozeman area in the summer, moving south to Arizona in the winter. He stopped talking for a minute, saying, "Hold on. I spilled the last cup of coffee. I've got to pay attention for a minute here." Then he invited me to look into the camper, a tidy home, with a cot mounted on one wall and a small kitchen area sitting below an intricate pattern of wood worked into the other.

Hornack calls himself "hobo at large" and is content with his lifestyle. "I can spend $50 a day or $125 dollars a day. I eat healthy and my health is good. I earn enough to get by — $5,000 to $8,000 a year," he said. He logs onto the Internet at computers in public libraries to keep abreast of the news.

"What's the main issue you're here for?" I asked. "Freedom," he said, explaining that he felt the government was encroaching on his freedom in various ways. One was that he had been fined for camping in an undesignated area and asked to appear in court or pay a fine. He said the offense is classified as a criminal offense, and he wants a jury trial, but the court won't allow for that, and he refuses to pay the fine. He pulled out a pocketbook to show the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"My friend told me that if I don't pay the fine, it could be a Class B misdemeanor," he said. "They will never take my guns. I will never be handcuffed. I am willing to die."

It was clear he had said these words before. His manner was calm; there was no hint of either irony or malice.

He said he hurt himself a few years back and was treated in an emergency room for free. "That's the way it should be. Why do we need some big government program?" he asked, adding that people should take care of their own families, "like they do in Japan." I noted that Japan had universal health care. "Still ...," he said.

The dog kept watching me and making a motion as if to stand. "What does he want?" I asked. "He wants you to throw the ball," Hornack said. Then I saw the chewed up tennis ball on the ground. I picked it up and threw it.

As we talked, two women paused as they drove by. Their car was plastered with Obama signs. They smiled at the dog as he intently watched me, hoping for another round. "That ball fell out of our car," one laughed.

"Yup," said Hornack, "he got it. And he loves it."

The women indicated they were happy for him to have it and waved a goodbye.
"What goes around comes around," Hornack said, as they drove off.

Back at the Tea Party encampment, the loudspeaker blared out Obama's answers to questions in the town hall. The die-hards of both sides remained, all listening, the pro-Obama side providing an outside edge to the gathering.

The main response came from Tea Party people who guffawed whenever Obama and the Constitution were used in the same sentence.

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