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Dateline Dixon: Nothing should compromise our free speech

DIXON – I’ll never forget the Fu Manchu mustache on Richard Nixon, the pirate patch we drew on George Washington, or the cool shades we gave Calvin Coolidge.

I was in fifth grade, and yes, with a small group of my classmates, we defaced a ruler handed out to us that had the faces of all the U.S. presidents.

We didn’t mean any harm or disrespect.

In fact, I enjoyed learning about the presidents and probably set a record at Sherman School for checking out “The Buck Stops Here,” a children’s book with lots of photographs and facts about presidents.

We were just bored children with a Sharpie.

Should we have gone to jail? Should our parents have paid a fine for our sketches?

Certainly not.

This anecdote reminds me of last week’s story involving a couple in front of the downtown Dixon post office.

Susan Wakefield and Tony DeFranco, of Chicago, representing the LaRouche PAC, drew a mustache similar to that of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler on a poster of President Barack Obama.

They weren’t doodling out of boredom, they were making a political statement.

Two Dixon residents, Randy Lilly, 57, and Ken Burnell, 65, called the police on them.

Lilly even asked, “How can this be legal?”

Police explained to both men that Wakefield and DeFranco were exercising their right to free speech – a right so important, our founding fathers made it the first amendment listed in the Bill of Rights.

Lilly did not stop at the police, however.

He said he contacted U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, encouraging her to pass legislation against what he believed to be offensive.

“There’s laws that say you can’t deface anything else,” Lilly said. “They should have a law against this.”

Bustos’ office said they have no record of Lilly contacting them.

Even so, if legislation ever were to be made censoring these statements, as Lilly suggests, where would the line be drawn?

Would this law strictly forbid just references to Hitler, or be vague enough to outlaw disrespecting the president?

Both are not good, especially when a group of people, whether you agree or disagree, want to make the argument that the president is acting like a Nazi dictator.

This right has to be preserved in the event that any president or politician actually takes on that role.

The right to criticize people in public office by freedom of speech or the press is the most fundamental check and balance in place today.

If that voice is compromised in any way, what’s to stop a president from becoming the next Hitler?

What’s to stop the government from throwing a little boy in prison for doodling a mustache on a former president?

While there’s a good argument to be had about being respectful, it should never come at the cost of free speech.

After all, that Fu Manchu on Nixon was pretty cool looking, to a kid.

To attend

Derek Barichello's “office hours” will be from 1 to 2 p.m. today at Books on First, 202 W. First St. Feel free to stop by and ask questions, suggest story ideas, or just chat.

He also can be reached at dbarichello@saukvalley.com or 800-798-4085, ext. 526.

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