This news report out of Missouri caught my eye:

When it comes to politics, there may be as many opinions as cars cruising down U.S. 65. So, naturally, there are different reactions to a billboard south of Ozark that says “Voted Obama? Embarrassed yet?”

“I know the president didn’t win down here, but there were a lot of people down here that voted for him, and I think I can speak for them and say we are not embarrassed yet,” Matthew Patterson, executive director of the Greene County Democratic Central Committee, said in a telephone interview on Sunday. [So this local Democrat believes Obama only won the Presidency in places where he received a majority vote? No wonder so many Democrats thought Gore won in 2000. --TPK]

“My partner and I felt lots of frustration here lately, and we liked that sign and we thought that was a reasonable question to ask,” Steve Critchfield said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Critchfield and his business partner from Commercial One Brokers, a real estate firm in Branson, saw a similar sign online, bought it, and brought it to the Ozarks.

“I’ve certainly voted for people I’m embarrassed to say I’ve voted for,” he said. “We’re not naïve enough to think that we wouldn’t get someone to be upset. I’m just surprised how upset people are.”

Critchfield says he’s received death threats due to the sign; people accuse him of hate speech and racism. He insists the billboard was for something more American in the name of discourse, conversation, and old-fashioned debate.

“If everybody thinks [President Obama's] done a great job and they’re very happy,” he said, “then I guess they’d be buying billboards saying ‘I’m proud to have voted for him.’ That’s what makes America great, isn’t it?”

Did you catch both the good and bad examples of free speech being exercised in the article? Obviously Steve Critchfield is exercising his right to free speech by buying the billboard, and people who are issuing death threats and accusing him of racism and hate speech are also exercising theirs. But those people are using their freedom of speech in a way designed to shut Critchfield up and deny him his freedom, a typical liberal response to the speech that liberals dislike.

But Critchfield nails the essence of free speech in the final two paragraphs of the news story: if people disagree with his opinion, the best way to express that would be to purchase a billboard of their own to support President Obama. That would be a dialog of ideas, and people could weigh the merits of each. And a dialog is much better than one side demanding that the other side shut up.

To refresh your memory, here’s the relevant part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” The Founding Fathers didn’t want the government preventing people from speaking out on any subject. And I have noticed that it is easy to support speech we agree with, but the real test comes when it is speech we don’t agree with.

Several months back in Missouri, a billboard was erected depicting now-President Obama in a turban and equating him with more abortions, same-sex marriages, taxes, and gun regulations. The Washburn Review editorial board wrote the following about the billboard:

There are several issues wrapped up together about this sign. It is offensive and uncalled for. It makes whomever wrote it look bigoted and unintelligent. Unintelligent because if Obama is elected, there won’t necessarily be MORE abortions or MORE same sex marriages. There might be the same number. The sign is misleading and offensive, to say the least. We cannot say that the sign is completely wrong because there might be more taxes or more gun regulations. There are good ways to make arguments and poor ways to make arguments. This sign is an asinine way to make an argument.

Nevertheless, should people be without the right to say such things? If we take away that right…what is next? The United States ruled that parody is a form of democratic dialogue. Is this parody or just racist name-calling?

It is an overly offensive piece of political “speech” that may be little more than ignorant people making ignorant claims.

These people should have the right to say/depict stupid things, because the rights of free speech are imperative to a democracy. [emphasis mine - CM]

Since we don’t, strictly speaking, live in a democracy, I’ll reword the last sentence correctly — the rights of free speech are imperative in our representative republic. People are, and should remain, free to speak and write whatever stupid or enlightened things they choose. If we like what people say, we can thank them with money and attention. Likewise, we can use our own freedom of speech to counter the ignorant and insulting speech of others. The proper reaction to speech we don’t like should be the free exercise of our own speech, and not gratification of the desire to shut others up. If we say that their speech shouldn’t be allowed because we don’t like it, or it hurts our sensitive feelings, then what stops them from stopping our speech because they don’t like it either? Either we all have free speech, or we don’t.

So what is the proper response to a sign you don’t like hanging up in some business? If it offends you, then don’t patronize that business. If you wish, you could explain to the proprietor why you find the sign offensive–and, if he doesn’t seem to care, why you won’t be spending your money there. Because of the freedom of speech, the business owner has the right to post any sign he chooses, just as you have the right to explain to the owner your displeasure with the sign, and the right to take your business elsewhere. But not everyone seems to understand the proper response to business signs:

The sign that reads “Unattended Children Will Be Sold As Slaves” has hung on the wall of the business for decades until Wednesday. The owner of Soap Opera Coin and Laundry said it was there when he bought the place and he just never took it down.

He called it a light-hearted nudge at parents who don’t watch their kids.

“It’s a joke. You have a child that’s messing around and ‘Oh, I’ll sell them as slave.’ I guess I can see how someone might get upset,” said David Marti, the laundromat owner.

Marti removed the sign after a customer complained about it to a Jacksonville television station.

The sign was removed, not because the customer complained to the owner, but because the customer complained to a local TV station. This is the classic liberal self-centered position of “I’m offended, so you need to change.” Sure, the hyper-offended are free to speak to the press, but they are doing so for two reasons: 1) because they’re too passive-aggressive to express their displeasure directly to those who offended them and 2) because they can’t accept the free speech of others. And that is why I say that the test of free speech comes when the speech in question is something we don’t agree with.

And speaking of things we don’t agree with, here is a final example of the repression of free speech in the news:

Two days after a man was sentenced to probation and community service for putting up a sign as a “joke” in a public works garage that said “whites only” on a drinking fountain, city police were called to a home in the 600 block of 25th Street on Sunday to investigate another racially charged sign.

This one was clearly no joke.

No charges were filed Sunday, but police told the woman she must take down the handwritten sign on a fence on her property saying, “I rent three bedrooms [at her address to] white people Niagara Falls.”

The 53-year-old woman told police she put up the sign after someone tried to break into her house and added, “I can do what I want. I live in America,” according to a police report.

Police said they received complaints and she must take the sign down. An officer at the scene said the woman agreed to take down the sign under protest. The officer said the woman already had seven more signs she was planning to hang up.

What is the proper response to her exercise of free speech on her own property? The offended could talk to her about their issues with her sign. They could explain that such an openly racist sign was rude and offensive to the entire neighborhood. They could refuse to rent from her. Or they could exercise their own free speech to complain and discuss her sign. But instead of countering her free speech with their own, they responded by denying her freedom of speech at the hands of the authorities.

Remember, it’s easy to support the freedom of speech of those with whom we agree. The real test comes when we disagree completely with the speech of others. The Washburn Review editorial board understood this, but the people of Jacksonville, Florida and Niagara Falls, New York failed to stand up for the right of free speech because an individual’s particular exercise of it offended them. During the eight years of President Bush’s terms in office, liberals proudly proclaimed that dissent was patriotic. Based on the way liberals react when they are offended, I don’t think they will view conservative dissent of President Obama’s policies in the same way.

Is your offense greater than another person’s freedom? I don’t think so, but too many people do.