One of the unavoidable results of Donald Trump’s presidential win appears to be constant debate about “free speech” and the role of the First Amendment in post-Trump America. Last week, the artist-led super PAC For Freedoms put up this billboard in Pearl, Mississippi
The photograph is the famous “Two Minute Warning,” which shows a group of protesters confronting state troopers moments before violence erupted into the “Bloody Sunday” conflict in Selma, Alabama. It’s stirring, evocative, off-putting, and hard to ignore. The text “Make America Great Again” sprawled across the photo makes the undeniable statement that onlookers are meant to consider the image relative to Trump’s impending presidency.
When asked by press about the purpose of this and other similar billboards around the country, For Freedoms spokesperson Eric Gottesman explained:
“Our hope was to spark dialogue about our collective civic responsibility to push for freedom and justice today, as those before us pushed for freedom and justice in their time through peaceful protest and political participation.
We hope all who see our billboards think about them, talk about them, protest them, and let us and each other know their feelings. Only this will lead to a greater America.”
If conversation is what For Freedoms sought, it certainly accomplished its goal. Social media has erupted with criticism, discussion, and, of course, lots of misunderstanding.
From this tweet, which seems to interpret the billboard as calling for race-based violence:
not cool race riot tyme https://t.co/utp8LtWgRE
— LADY-LUC$IOUS (@sophiabrown9) November 18, 2016
To this one, erroneously attributing the billboard to Trump supporters:
A trump supporting group put this billboard up in Mississippi. Shows image of Bloody Sunday. https://t.co/334fTIzTAa
— Thomas Arzi (@ThomasArzi) November 21, 2016
What’s most clear is that the public’s interpretation of art is uncontrollable, and sometimes even unpredictable. This tweet said it best:
— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) November 19, 2016
And in a telling move, Brad Rogers, the mayor of Pearl, Mississippi, spoke with the company controlling the ad space; afterward, Rogers assured residents that the billboard would be taken down next week. A socially-provocative billboard (so long as that billboard isn’t obscene, defamatory, or otherwise is entitled to legal protection) effecting civil discourse regarding politics is the very essence of the point of the First Amendment. Elected officials must acknowledge that fact, or risk shirking their responsibilities. For all the many things about which Mike Pence is consistently and egregiously wrong, he got this one right following the now-famous statements by the cast of Hamilton. “This is what freedom sounds like,” Pence explained. And he’s right. Mayor Rogers should take note.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.