EDITORIAL: Liberty to speak against government should not be suppressed in Malheur County

The image of a police chief escorting a citizen out of a government meeting to silence their views ought to chill every citizen of Malheur County. And then it ought to provoke resistance. There is no more basic right in this country than for citizens to shake their fingers, raise their voices and even, yes, hold up signs to speak their minds to those who govern.

Taking away the people’s right to address and even attack their government is more often the tool of despots and dictators. Yet in Malheur County, we’ve twice experienced instances recently of government suppression – the silencing of voices critical of government.

Let’s start with the Ontario City Council. Marty Justus, who can be effective as anyone at needling people, has been showing up for council sessions with a series of signs. He sits in the front row, displaying the signs in rotation to the councilors. He doesn’t wave them. He doesn’t jump up and down for attention. He sits and shows.

The signs question the fitness for public duty of Mayor Riley Hill. Hill most likely doesn’t care for the signs. And his fellow councilors decided they, too, didn’t care for the signs. Last week they voted Justus be tossed from the meeting if he didn’t stow the signs. That included Councilors John Kirby, Eddie Melendrez, Freddy Rodriguez, Sam Baker and Mike Hart. It also included Hill – the target of the signs.

And then there is the board of the Malheur County Development Corp. This is the bunch in charge of spending $26 million in public money for a rail center in Nyssa. They required a farm family to pledge silence about the rail center to get $400,000 in government help to save their farming operation from ripple effects of the project. This requirement wasn’t to keep confidential details about some sensitive government operation. It wasn’t to protect something like security measures. No, the measure was intended to stifle this family from speaking out against the rail center.

The board even had a chance for a do-over, to reconsider this rash requirement. The directors convened in a special meeting in early May specifically to consider dropping that condition. This was the time for the directors to realize they were stepping on the air hose of liberty.

Instead, they doubled down. They saw no reason to allow citizens to speak up – and against their work. They voted without dissent to require the farmers stay silent. This included Grant Kitamura, Corey Maag, Jason Pearson, and Randi Svaty, who has since quit the board.

Think about what this means. Here, in Malheur County, in a conservative community that treasures the U.S. Constitution and limited government, we have the government silencing voices of dissent. What’s worse, these are decisions made by our friends and neighbors, business leaders and local taxpayers. This is not some foreign government or official in Washington, D.C., imposing an iron hand.

Dissent against the governed is a right enshrined in that Constitution. In this country, the ultimate government is the people who are governed. As citizens, we decide the course of those who rule us – by ballot, by initiative, and by speaking out. We are at liberty – with certain limits preserving civil order – to criticize and even insult those who govern us. We are not to be constrained from speaking our minds.

Imagine if Gov. Kate Brown, much reviled in our county, had tried to do what these local governments had done. Imagine that she had required Grant Kitamura, president of the development board, to give up his right to speak against state government to get $26 million to help move his onions. Every onion grower and broker in the area would grab a bullhorn and placards to protest. They would have been backed by many others locally. Rightfully so.

But here, in our own backyard, the government has acted in just such a capricious way. Was it because the views being expressed by Justus or the Nyssa farm family encouraged criminal behavior? No. Did they incite violence? No. Were they advocating the lawless overthrow of the government? Not even close.

They simply wanted to speak their minds about their government. Clearly, their views aren’t kind to those governing. Tough. They have the right to their views, and that right ought to be defended and secured by every Malheur County citizen who regards liberty as sacrosanct. In these recent instances, the government acted not to preserve peace but to oppress views it didn’t want to hear or heed.

There is a high cost to this oppression that goes beyond Justus being pushed out of a public meeting. The government’s conduct in these instances should make every citizen think: Will I be punished for speaking up? The fear that there is a personal price for opposing the government serves to still those voices. Why speak up when you could get in trouble? Best toe the party line, to do what the government wants or be quiet.

Being in government, whether as a paid employee or as a volunteer leader, can be no joy. The pinpricks of protest can be wearing, we’ll grant that. But never, under any circumstance, should those entrusted with power grow so weary of listening to citizens that they impose an unacceptable remedy – forced silence. – LZ

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