Grand Forks City Leader Trying To Walk Back Opposition To Free Speech

In today’s Grand Forks Herald city councilor and University of North Dakota professor Bret Weber tries to walk back comments he made about inhibiting free speech in his community.

Weber, you might remember, organized a meeting of city leaders last week in an effort aimed at prohibiting or at least inhibiting future speeches in the community by anti-Islam speaker Usama Dakdok.

“None of this was about free speech, which we all support,” Weber writes in the Herald today. “My efforts and the conversation that was held last Friday have been about showing that we are a fair-minded, welcoming and intelligent community, as well as a great place for all people to grow their businesses and pursue their dreams.”

That’s a little hard to square with some of the things Weber, you know, actually said.

Free speech champions don’t appoint themselves arbiters of what kind of speech can and cannot be associated with the “brand” of their communities.

“We must guard against any sense that bigotry is somehow endorsed by our community — we do not want to have Dakdok’s name become a part of our brand,” Weber wrote in an email obtained by the Grand Forks Herald. “(Dakdok’s) name should not be associated with the brand of our city, of our downtown, of UND or of the Empire.”

Free speech champions don’t appoint themselves arbiters of what kind of speech can and cannot be associated with the “brand” of their communities. But it got worse.

“Weber threw out a suggestion for the city to throw a huge block party so parking would be unbearable if Dakdok came back to the Empire again,” the Herald, which got a reporter into Weber’s meeting despite his initial objections, reported.

Again, not exactly the sort of suggestion you’d expect to come from someone who claims to support free speech. Counter-protests are one thing. Actively trying to block people from attending an event is quite another.

“My mistake was in believing that I could make these arrangements as a private citizen,” Weber writes. “While I serve on the Grand Forks City Council, I do not have the luxury of taking that hat off. I was wrong, and I apologize.”

But whether Weber is acting in an official capacity as an elected leader of the City of Grand Forks, or as a private citizen, his words still indicate that his intent was to try and stifle speech and thus are inexcusable.

“[W]e’d urge Weber to be more careful with his words in the future,” the Herald writes in an editorial today. But the problem wasn’t that Weber inartfully described his intent. The problem is that his intent was to silence speech he disagreed with.

He’s backing off that now, because his efforts were exposed and became the subject of criticism, but let’s not allow him to make ex post facto revisions to what he tried to do.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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