Freedom of Speech: Death By a Thousand Cuts


Thursday, November 5, 2020

On Wednesday, October 7, the California Department of Transportation began receiving calls concerning large, white letters spelling “TRUMP” in the style of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles’ Sepulveda Pass. Although the sign was constructed on private property a significant distance from the highway, the California Highway Patrol deemed it to be a “traffic hazard.” In response, the Department of Transportation reportedly trespassed onto said private property and “laid down” the sign.

In defense of these arguably illegal actions, Lauren Wonder, the department’s chief public information officer, claimed that the sign was “a life and safety issue because there were concerns about distracted driving.” Other parties have argued that the sign’s removal was politically motivated. In a social media post referenced by CBS Los Angeles, a user claimed that they would “sue the city for not allowing freedom of speech” and argued that if the sign had read “Biden” instead it would not have been removed.

In response to claims of political motivation behind the department’s actions, Wonder claimed that “the sign did not meet state regulations for temporary political signs within view of a state highway, and state law directs Caltrans to remove unauthorized signs.” According to the State Outdoor Advertising Act, section 5405.3: “Nothing in this chapter…shall prohibit the placing of temporary political signs, unless a federal agency determines that such placement would violate federal regulations. However, no such sign shall be placed within the right-of-way of any highway or within 660 feet of the edge of and visible from the right-of-way of a landscaped freeway.” Currently no news source has confirmed that the sign was in fact in violation of this code.

People on either end of the political spectrum took to Twitter following this incident, some claiming the sign was simply an expression of Freedom of Speech, while others argued that the sign was an inappropriate display to begin with. Several individuals also noted a political double standard favoring Democrats. As stated in a KTVZ article, one Twitter user argued that the sign’s removal was “so typical” of California and the “same reason I can’t have my Trump flag up in my neighborhood; I’m afraid of vandalism but five blocks over there’s 2 BLM signs that we’re all respectful of.”

The sign and the California Department of Transportation’s response has raised many questions concerning freedom of speech and its apparent limitations in addition to a possible double standard existing between conservatives and liberals. In June, for example, protesters in Seattle, WA established what became known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Protesters declared a specific area to be separate from Seattle jurisdiction and ceased following the city’s laws. Following its establishment, occupants painted the words “Black Lives Matter” across 10th and East Pine. Despite the fact that Seattle prohibits street art without a “responsible party…who has authority over the property or is responsible for the property’s maintenance or management.” Furthermore, according to the city’s Graffiti Nuisance Code, “[A]ny property located in The City of Seattle that becomes a graffiti nuisance is in violation” of the code along with the responsible party.  

Instead of prosecuting those in violation of the law, Seattle has chosen to make the street mural permanent. The city released a statement claiming that the mural is “an acknowledgement of the cultural significance of the site in the Black Lives Matter movement.” One of the artists asserted that ideally “the city helps us touch it up each year” to ensure its permanency. These same factors can be applied to the murals painted in New York City and Washington D.C.

As the legality of both situations have been questioned, why was one praised and endorsed by city officials and the other condemned? This is a prime example of the ever increasing double standard existing between the display of conservative and liberal ideas. The Founding Fathers acknowledged the importance of Free Speech to a republic; public debate, especially with those we disagree with, is essential to a successful democratic society.

In a world hyper-fixated on not offending anyone, Free Speech is subject to a slow, ugly death- allowing society to create a double standard between the acceptance of ideas simply speeds up this process. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams famously stated: “When people talk to the freedom of writing, speaking or thinking I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists: but I hope it will exist, [b]ut it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.” 

History is full of attempts to stifle Free Speech; the 21st century is no different. The hypocritical approaches to Seattle and Los Angeles reiterate Adams’ words: democracy dies when Freedom of Speech ceases to be free. 


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Amelia Underhill is a student of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at The King's College in New York City. She's passionate about the First Amendment, free markets, and Ronald Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Amelia Underhill

Amelia Underhill is a student of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at The King's College in New York City. She's passionate about the First Amendment, free markets, and Ronald Reagan.

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