Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers is one of the nicest people I’ve never met in person. We’ve talked several times on the phone during election cycles but never physically crossed paths. He’s told me stories about the comradery from all candidates, even those running against each other, on election night as crowds gathered at the Supervisor of Elections office prior to the results being posted online.
I’ve followed some of his older work dating back to a 2007 story he wrote for the Ocala StarBanner on a dark money group that recently resurfaced in Citrus last election cycle. He’s a talented reporter when the story requires digging and an excellent writer clearly expressing himself to any audience.
I understand why he investigated the information that led to his front page, above the fold story today about language on electioneering communication. The Chronicle’s letter to the editor page received several complaints about imagery and wording on signs at our community festivals hosted by the Chamber, leading the Chamber’s events director to issue a statement that they would be more diligent about enforcing community standards policy.
The contradiction, however, of a newspaper reporter reaching out to the First Amendment Foundation with questions that could potentially limit the scope of the first amendment rather than defend it is almost an incomprehensible occurrence. This doesn’t mean that Hiers is a bad reporter for a line of questioning that challenges the freedom of speech. It just means that he’s a good guy who is bothered by what he sees.
Political advertising that contains foul language will typically be seen on the right and specifically directed either in favor of former President Donald Trump or against President Joe Biden. This isn’t a piece bashing the right though. My position is not that we should be actively trying to limit what people are allowed to say, but rather the appeal as to why we can choose not to use it needs to be focused on the individual, not authority or community.
I have written a couple of different columns explaining how ineffective it is to tell someone they must do something when we respond much better to things that we can do. The appeal to authority, contacting an attorney with the First Amendment Foundation to determine the legality of the signs, is a search for the ability to tell people that they must stop doing something. “Because the law says so,” detractors can then argue.
The law, though, wasn’t on the side of the reporter who was bothered enough to ask the questions in the first place. The appeal shouldn’t be to an authority power over people, such as the law, but rather to the personal empowerment of the individual.
That is what these signs are about. The Trump movement which has persisted well after his presidency embodied individual empowerment. This is a strong message that is fundamentally American.
The problem with it is that in a few circumstances the individual’s ability to do something would have been better left undone. Some of these actions like the signs are self-inflicted and many more were non-stories amplified by a combative national media.
The foul language signs are bothersome to me too. I was raised to never use certain words that appear on car decals and flags in front of women or children. Far more worrisome to me, however, is a newspaper actively seeking information from a third-party in hopes of limiting others’ right to expression.
The message shouldn’t be that the individual isn’t legally allowed to display the flags and stickers, because they are, nor should it be because other people including myself in the community don’t appreciate looking at it, because in earnest we don’t matter.
The message on this Mother’s Day is to remember the lessons from our own youth. You alone can choose whether or not you want to live up to a standard set before all of us of not only expressing your right to do something but also demonstrating you can choose not to as well.
I hope to meet Fred Hiers in the next election cycle. When I first read this story online yesterday, the sentiment that it reflected reminded me of all the times Fred demonstrated he’s the nicest guy I’ve never met. The story, though, misses the mark for the root solution to the problem. We’ll do better in the future. Not because we must, but because we can.