A Victory for Freedom of Speech in Tennessee


September 12, 2019 10:19AM

You are now free to put “Go USA!” on a highway billboard in Tennessee. It is entirely possible that you had no idea that there would be any doubt about your ability to express support for America’s Olympic team but you would be wrong. Until very recently, that was illegal. We’ve written about the case before, but the state had, in fact, taken down just such a sign and then charged the owner, Bill Thomas, for the privilege.

Wednesday, the Court of Appeals agreed with what appeared obvious to everyone else: this is unconstitutional.

No one should have their message banned (or, in this case, physically destroyed and then billed) because of what it says. Sometimes only the words of the decision will do so here they are (emphasis is my own):

But what if this sign, with its “Go USA!” and American flag referencing the Summer Olympics were posted on a U.S. Olympic Committee facility? Or on an unaffiliated athletic training facility, a retail store selling U.S. Olympic Team merchandise, an NBC station broadcasting the Games, a travel agency offering discount trips to London for the Games, a casino with wagering on Olympic events, an animal shelter that names each of the pets after an American Olympic athlete because that faciliates adoptions, or a Korean consulate attempting to extend diplomatic good will? Which of these activities, products, or services falls satisfactorily within the meaning, function, or purpose of the sign so as to meet the exception? More importantly, who decides? The Tennessee official decides.

No one gets to say what you can and can’t say in America. This goes to the cardinal purpose of the First Amendment, and this opinion expresses one of the key principles underneath – there is no one qualified to police what ideas should and should not be expressed.

We have all benefitted from the message Bill Thomas has delivered. He’s got 30 billboards in the state of Tennessee. Now he is free to speak his mind. Let’s see what he has to say is a good idea or a bad idea. You know who gets to decide?

You do.