If you were at the Rodeo Parade in Boulder on Aug. 28, you probably saw it: A silver pickup truck driving down Main Street, its bed festooned with two flags—one, the United States stars and stripes, the other bearing the words, “F--- Biden.”

And you probably thought something along the lines of either, “Damn straight,” or, “That shouldn’t be there.” It was difficult not to take sides, hard not to feel something: Offense and outrage; or recognition and, perhaps, pride.

In that way, the flag did its job. We were instantly polarized. Right and wrong, us and them.

Not bad for a 3-by-5-foot banner that can be had on Amazon for just $12.99 (with free shipping!). It is not an uncommon sight these days, and it’s no stranger to controversy: In July, Roselle Park, New Jersey, ordered a homeowner to remove “F--- Biden” flags from her fence or face a $250-a-day fine—before dropping the charge because, basically, it had no case. Similar incidents have played out in Plymouth, Connecticut, and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, among other places.

So, what should we make of this? Is it okay?

I spoke with Shannon Waisanen, the woman who flew the flag in Boulder. She told me that, in the eight months since President Joe Biden has taken office, she and her friends have seen Constitutional freedoms increasingly threatened. “We’re angry about it, and it’s not just us. And after the blunder of Afghanistan, we were hurt.” She and her friends have or had family members in the military, and they thought the rushed withdrawal from that country was “shameful.”

“So, we decided to use our freedom of speech to say f--- Biden. Just us standing up and using our Constitutional right to voice our opinion.” Waisanen understands that some people were angered by the display. But “nowhere in the Constitution does it say you have the right not to be offended. If you’re angered that’s your right, but it’s not your right to limit my right.”

She’s correct, of course. Historically, public profanity was considered blasphemous and punishable. (And in some places, it still is.) But for the last 50 years, profanity generally has been protected as free speech by the First Amendment. In its 1971 decision in Cohen v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an individual wearing a jacket with the words, “F--- the Draft” in a California courthouse could not be convicted under a local disturbing the peace law. In the decision, Justice John Marshall Harlan II wrote that, “while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” 

As a journalist and newspaper publisher, I have long been sympathetic to that logic. But lately, I’ve come to question the legitimacy of free speech absolutism. Do we really believe that people should be able to say whatever they want, wherever and whenever?

Clearly not, because we already accept limits on speech freedom: Cursing that escalates into personal attacks is not protected, and the government can regulate indecent speech that is broadcast on radio or television. Hate speech targeting specific individuals or groups based on race, say, or religion, is illegal.

And I’m swayed by Andrew Marantz, author of “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” who wrote in The New York Times: “Free speech is a bedrock value in this country. But it isn’t the only one. Like all values, it must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal. But what about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all.”

Americans seem to recognize this—but in eclectic and ideologically skewed ways. A majority believe that individuals should be allowed to express unpopular opinions in public, according to a 2017 survey by the libertarian Cato Institute. But that survey also found that people are willing to regulate or punish a wide variety of expression they personally found offensive: 65% of Republicans, for example, said National Football League players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the national anthem; and 58% of Democrats said employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.

So, no, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. And no, flying a “F--- Biden” flag in a public parade is not OK. Regardless of what you make of our current president, such profanity disrespects the office of the presidency. It is cheap and coarse language that diminishes civic dialogue. (Waisanen notes that plenty of profanity was heaped on our previous President, which is true; there’s plenty of blame to go around here.)

Worst of all, it is language geared very much to polarize us—feeding on and amplifying the tribalism that already is wrenching this nation. Terry Minow, chair of the Jefferson County Fair Board, says that “what I love about fair weekend is it brings people together of all kinds. We’re a community, and that’s what we should be focused on.” The anti-Biden flag was an affront to that sense of common values and a shared future.

We don’t have to tolerate that. You can, for one thing, let the Jefferson County Rodeo Association, which organizes the parade, know where you stand. Brady Nordahl, the group’s chair, says it was “disappointed with the flag being flown at a public family event.” While the JCRA is “not going to censor either side of the political spectrum,” she wrote, “the flag that was flown is not what our rodeo weekend represented.” The Association, she said, plans to review what happened to avoid similar incidents in the future.

And if you see or hear language like that in public, ask the person behind it: Why? What are you trying to accomplish? For her part, Waisanen says she hopes that getting people’s attention will prompt constructive discussion of the erosion of liberties. But really, is “F--- Biden” a welcoming gateway to open and nuanced conversation that bridges division?

This is on us. We can, as Minow suggests, “respond thoughtfully and sensibly, not with anger. We can say, no, we reject that. That’s not us.”

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