Freedom of speech unwelcome in Miami

December 07, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - It is the arrogance that most offends.

Yes, the wrongheadedness is troubling, the ignorance irritating. But that damn-you arrogance is what makes you need to count to 10.

I refer to the latest insult to free speech in Miami, about which, more in a moment. But first, a little background for those who came in late.

Four years ago, the Cuban band Los Van Van played the Miami Arena while hundreds of Cuban exiles protested outside. They had been incited by local officials who had tried for days to block the performance of a group they regard as closely aligned with Fidel Castro's communist regime.

Predictably, some knuckleheads in the crowd became violent. Batteries, bottles and saliva were hurled at those trying to enter the arena, along with a few choice epithets, of which "whore," "faggot" and "pig" are among the more printable examples. After city officials helped create the near riot, they had the gall to bill the arena $36,000 for extra security costs. The arena sent the bill to promoter Debra Ohanian, who paid it, then sued.

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the bill amounted to a tax on unpopular speech. The judge ordered the city to reimburse Ms. Ohanian.

Which brings us back to arrogance, in the person of City Commissioner Tomas Regalado. You see, even though the city acknowledged in court that its actions were unconstitutional, Mr. Regalado, who was reportedly in the crowd of protesters in 1999, is appallingly unrepentant. Billing the arena and the promoter was, he says, a "moral" issue. "It sends a message. You want to bring an event that offends one part of the community, you've got to be ready to go to court."

Oh, really?

So if somebody wants to hold a pro-choice rally in Miami, if the Nation of Islam wants to protest or the National Rifle Association to demonstrate, the guilty parties should be ready to face Tommy Terrific and his Lawyers of Doom?

Lord, give me strength.

I mean, did Florida secede from the Union again and nobody told me? Did John Ashcroft rescind the First Amendment? Or is it just that South Florida remains a hotbed of political intolerance, a region without peer in the crowded field of constitutional illiteracy?

We are, after all, talking about the same South Florida where a rap impresario was once arrested because a local sheriff didn't like his lyrics. And where airport officials once removed a magazine from the newsstand because they disagreed with one of its articles.

Both the sheriff and the airport officials thought they were justified in what they did because they were offended. And each was stubbornly unwilling or stupidly unable to understand that in a democracy where freedom of speech is enshrined as a matter of law, such feelings are irrelevant.

The same is true here.

With all due respect to Br'er Tommy, it doesn't matter that some Cuban exiles are affronted by Los Van Van. If the Ku Klux Klan has a right to march through the South Side of Chicago (and it does), if an Arab in an Osama bin Laden T-shirt has a right to walk in lower Manhattan (and he does), then Los Van Van has a right to perform in Miami. It may be provocative, it may be offensive, but the one thing it is not is illegal.

And as long as it isn't, the government has no business trying to punish or prevent it. Greater Miami seems to forget that more often than most.

Now the city is handed a $36,000 reminder, but Mr. Regalado's self-righteous defense of that which is plainly indefensible leaves little confidence the lesson will take, even at that price.

Somebody buy this twit a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Send me the bill.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald and his column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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