Commentary: Pandemic Protests Remind Us Even Doltish Speech Is Protected Speech

Apr 22, 2020

The First Amendment is a one-size-fits-all piece of our Constitution.

It protects free speech, and it doesn't discriminate.

It protects good speech, bad speech, smart speech, stupid speech, even hate speech – no matter how much decent people are repulsed by it.  

It also covers the protest rallies popping up outside of state offices around the country, including Ohio, where people are demanding that the stay-at-home orders issued by states during the coronavirus pandemic be lifted and businesses – particularly small businesses – be allowed to reopen.

Life should get back to normal, they say, as if nothing had happened; tens of thousands of their fellow citizens had not died from the COVID-19 virus, and the threat has disappeared – poof! Gone. Just like magic.

In other words, these are people who are living in a dream world.

Ohio's protests outside the Statehouse in Columbus have been relatively small – a hundred or so people at most.

In other states like Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, the protests have drawn thousands of people. 

And who has been cheering this on from his little Tweet machine? None other than Donald Trump. You might think he is too busy being the Fearless Leader of the battle to defeat coronavirus to be getting involved in these protests, but he was tweeting away over the weekend, encouraging people in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia to "liberate" their states from the cruel orders of their Democratic governors.

This is the same guy who, a few days before, held a conference call with the nation's governors in which he told them they should be the ones making the decisions about when their states should reopen for business and that he would support them.

Donald Trump saying one thing and doing another? Say it ain't so.

I think we are getting rather accustomed to this act, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out why he is stirring the pot: he believes it could rebound in his favor at the polls this fall.

"I don’t think it is necessarily a contradiction,'' said Scott Pullins, a long-time Republican campaign consultant in Ohio and founder of the Ohio Taxpayer Association.

Trump, Pullins said, "thinks that some of the governors need to push a little harder to open their states. He's just sending a message."

There are some national media outlets that have been breathlessly reporting that these protests are some kind of public opinion tsunami that is sweeping across the country.

That's nonsense. Add up all the people at all the rallies in all the states and it is still a relative handful of people. A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of U.S. voters showed that only 36% generally trust what Trump says about the pandemic. Two-thirds – 66% – said they trust the governors on COVID-19.

There's little question that the protestors in Ohio and elsewhere are, for the most part, Trump supporters. You can see it in their MAGA hats, their Trump T-shirts and other Trump regalia. I've spotted some local people I know who were involved in the 2016 Trump campaign in Cincinnati among the Ohio Statehouse crowd.

Trump has kind things to say about the protestors.

"They seem to be very responsible people to me,'' Trump said Monday.

Some protestors are staying a respectful six feet apart and wearing masks. Others aren't interested in social distancing in any way shape or form. Those people are just begging to be infected.

It is said that Republicans "don't protest because they are too busy working,'' Pullins said. "Well, I guess there are so many of them who have lost their jobs that they have the time."

Maybe so.

They have every right to do so. First Amendment says so. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine agrees. He just asks that they practice safety measures and social distancing while they are protesting his plans.

If people who have been to these rallies around the country start coming down with the virus, it will be interesting to see if the protests can still draw a crowd.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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