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Stop the sneaky assault on citizens' free speech

September 30, 2004

Tonight, two candidates for president of the United States will debate on nationwide television. Their emphasis will be on foreign policy, but today we'd like to address an election matter closer to home - the intentional theft and/or destruction of campaign signs.

Philip Baker-Shenk, chairman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, recently wrote to say that Bush-Cheney signs, including several measuring 4 feet by 8 feet, had been taken from private property.

In one case, he said, a large sign was set on fire, while another was covered with graffiti. Baker-Shenk called on Democratic Central Committee Chairman Rick Hemphill to condemn such acts, which he does in a well-worded letter elsewhere on this page.

We join these two in censuring such acts, which involve trespassing and destruction of property, both of which are clearly against the law. More disturbing, these acts are also an assault on free speech.

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Yes, placing a sign on one's property is a form of speech, just the same as wearing a campaign button or handing out fliers on a public street.

Taking down a sign or vandalizing it is an attempt to muzzle the speaker just as surely as if the vandals had placed their hands over the speaker's mouth.

Should the right to speak in this way be available only to some Americans, to those that we agree with?

To all, we say, because if the minority is muzzled, the rest of us are denied input that may shape our ideas and the candidates' thoughts.

Candidate Ralph Nader will not be part of tonight's debate, but he will no doubt be quoted extensively afterward in a way that will add to voters' understanding of what is said tonight.

Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher, said something that many assume is an American sentiment: "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."

That's a right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, a right that ensures that even groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which have messages repugnant to the majority of citizens, can be heard.

Don't sully this debate with vandalism. If you know someone who is doing so, call the police. Of course, under our system of government, they will have a right to be heard in court. We look forward to hearing what possible excuse they might offer for such reprehensible behavior.

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