Now that Robert Copeland has finally resigned as a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, N.H., after referring to President Obama with a vile racial epithet, there seems to be a move afoot in some quarters to portray him as a victim of political correctness and a martyr in the cause of free speech. He is neither, and to think so betrays a thorough misunderstanding of constitutional rights.
Copelands remark, which contained a racial slur preceded by an obscenity, was overheard in a restaurant in March by a resident. She brought it to the attention of the town manager and the other two members of the police commission, an elected body that hires, fires and disciplines police officers and sets their salaries. When confronted about it, Copeland, 82, was hardly apologetic, writing in response that, I believe I did use the N word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse. For this, I do not apologize he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.
Earlier this month, about 100 residents attended a public meeting that was held to discuss the issue. Given that Wolfeboro, a wealthy resort town of 6,300 residents, has no mechanism for removing public officials between elections, many of those who attended were there to urge him to resign. Eventually he did, much to the relief of other town officials, who feared that his widely reported remark might lead to a boycott by potential visitors this summer.
Both at the meeting and subsequently, defenders of Copeland have suggested that the public outcry that greeted his remark was an example of the thought police stifling his free speech rights. Actually, the whole affair was a vindication of free speech.
The First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. That is, government may not interfere with freedom of expression. It does not guarantee, however, that free speech will be free of the consequences it may incur in the marketplace of ideas.
In this instance, Copeland exercised his right to speak his mind if, in fact, he still has one and defended vigorously his right to do so. That did not mean that those who learned of his views were obliged to treat them with tolerance or refrain from exercising their own speech rights. Constituents of an elected official are under no obligation to remain silent when that official expresses views, even privately, that they find repugnant. In fact, many residents of Wolfeboro may have felt that their silence could have been interpreted as an endorsement of, or at least acquiescence in, Copelands slur.
So they were perfectly free to call on him to resign, and people living farther away certainly had a right to express themselves by threatening a tourist boycott. Just because a person has a right to say something doesnt mean that he has a right not to be contradicted, or to be immune from public condemnation.
The faith of the nations founders was that so long as government was barred from prohibiting speech it deemed dangerous or offensive, unsound views would be exposed as such in the welter of public debate, and wiser counsel would prevail. Thats what happened in this case.