No News; Know News

You can’t know the news when the news fails to report it. As best we can tell from our research, not one of the state’s major (or even larger) newspapers covered an important story about an assault on religious liberty by the federal government right here in Tennessee. Here’s the news you don’t know, and not knowing could hurt you. In fact, you could wind up in jail.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service went postal when it came to freedom of speech. For two weeks in 2010, Michael Choate, from Somerville, Tennessee, had stood on a public sidewalk 40 feet from the entrance to the Oakland, Tennessee, post office, handing out Christian pamphlets to passersby. But not anymore. A postal regulation prohibits anyone from engaging in conduct that “impedes or disturbs the general public from transacting business.” And the local postmaster, Terrena Moore, had Mr. Chaote arrested for creating a “disturbance.” Apparently some people were “annoyed” by the message and had complained. Thus, he was creating a “disturbance.”

While the charges were eventually dropped, Mr. Chaote sought assurances from the local postmaster that if he exercised his right to free speech on a public sidewalk in the future, he would not be arrested. Instead, he was told the regulation would continue to be interpreted the way it had been when he was arrested. So Mr. Choate sought assurances from the Postmaster General that the postal service would not allow the regulation to be interpreted in that way. Again, no assurance was given.

So in July of this year, the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit against the postal service on behalf of Mr. Choate for violation of his right to free speech. Apparently the local postmaster and the U.S. Postal Service must believe that the constitutional protection for free speech only applies if the speech doesn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities. Clearly this is a restriction based on the content of the speech, something the First Amendment forbids.

But if the postmaster’s interpretation and application of the regulation is correct, we’ll soon be living in a silent world. Someone is surely going to be offended by about anything that someone says.

In fact, I’m sure the Oakland postmaster would be offended by what I just said. So, please don’t print this out and distribute it on the sidewalk by the Oakland post office. You just could find yourself in jail.

(You can read the complaint itself or the ADF news release summarizing the case.)