By Don Smith
Executive Director of the West Virginia Press Association
Will the controversy surrounding statements last week about LGBTQ organizations by a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates greatly change West Virginia?
Will change come from…
… the Delegate’s statements? In discussion of an amendment to allow LGBTQ individuals by law to have anti-discrimination rights, the Delegate used a slur, compared LGBTQ organizations to terrorist organizations and offered other political opinions.
… the responses and condemnation from other Delegates? Several Delegates in the committee and on the House floor expressed their displeasure and opposition to the statements. There have also been calls for the Delegate’s resignation.
No, neither of those incidents will greatly change West Virginia.
We must be honest: The Delegate’s statements certainly horrified and infuriated many West Virginians. Others were mostly shocked and surprised to hear such comments uttered by an elected official during the legislative session. Some, though, agreed with the statements.
Informed West Virginians — regardless of our personal beliefs — know state residents hold vastly different opinions on many important issues. Those opinions reflect personal experience, location, education, person finances and numerous other influences.
Real change, if it happens, would come in how we — as a state — respond to the controversy, not in how we — as individuals — react to the statements.
In full disclosure, as readers deserve to know about the source of a column, this writer does support adding protection for members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination in housing, employment and all other areas. I oppose any type of ‘hate speech.”
However, those positions are not the topic of this column. This isn’t about current law, bills or the LGBTQ question. I want to caution against future reaction to these comments and any future call for restrictions on free speech.
The First amendment assures all of us freedom of speech.
The Delegate is entitled to his opinion and allowed to speak. We must remember he is legally elected to represent a House District in West Virginia.
W.Va. legislators and other columnists will address the need for protections and the Delegate’s comments.
My point: Letting people talk – while often painful – gives us insight. Legislative leaders, voters, political opponents now know what the Delegate believes. After these comments, it will be interesting to see if the Delegate gains committee status or is re-elected.
Each of his critics in the House of Delegates is equally entitled to their individual opinion and to pass legislation as a governing body. If our system of government works, the sound of the entire choir will always overwhelm the voice of a member singing in a different key to assure a quality overall performance.
Change will come in how the legislature, after hearing from the people of our state, view the Delegate’s right to make such statements.
We should not fear public statements; those can be debated. Danger comes from action based on personal beliefs. In the case of an elected official, voters should encourage discussion in committee, watch votes on legislation, and elect informed representatives they can support.
West Virginians should encourage open and public discussion on all topics. We gain nothing by forcing silence through limiting free speech, threats or violence. You can only change a person’s opinion, if you’re aware of the position.
In all cases, any attempt to restrict free speech reduces the discussion of important issues, the expression of personal opinions and the public’s general awareness. Forced silence isn’t agreement or change.
When we try to define free speech, we limit it.
It’s difficult to hear “hate speech,” but I’m reminded of a statement on free speech: A rattlesnake’s bite is just as poisonous if you take away the rattle. You just don’t get a warning.
For positive change, West Virginians need to be more informed on the issues, not more insulated from the realities.
Note: This column was updated Feb. 11.