Wittchow Flag

Ripon resident Rob Wittchow unfurls a U.S. Marine Corps flag in explaining that to some his banner is art, to others, a sign. He then announced that he will apply for a permit to paint “MAGA 2020” on East Fond du Lac Street in front of the “Black Lives Matter” mural.

Hypocrisy can be a convenient dodge when it permits our impulses to overshadow our values.

Consider the First Amendment’s prescription that government (e.g. president, congress, city council, school board, historic preservation commission) “shall make no law” inhibiting our rights to worship, express ourselves or assemble.

These rights are inalienable but they are not absolute.

We can’t avoid getting a speeding ticket by telling an officer to “wait until I’m done praying.” We can’t assemble with friends by hosting a party in the county jail. And we can’t express our objection to rising gas prices by torching a Kwik Trip.

Our rights are tempered by “time, place and manner” restrictions that protect speech by regulating it.

That’s what Ripon’s Historic Preservation Commission did when it approved design guidelines 12 years ago that provide aesthetic direction while making no mention of what businesses are appropriate, and the Ripon Municipal Code, which prohibits a sign painted on the side of a building unless the image is a “work of art that [does] not include any commercial message.”

This content neutrality is critical; it is un-American and un-Constitutional to deputize government officials as speech police.

Yet that’s what almost 25% of the 33 audience members sought who turned out for last week’s Ripon Historic Preservation Commission meeting. They defended the “Black Lives Matter” mural off East Fond du Lac Street as meriting approval because it is “a testament to social justice,” provides “an economic net positive impact” and, as the mural’s creator Rafael Salas told a Fox 11 reporter, “There’s no other way to see it beyond the message.”

With the best of intentions, these citizens — and those who spoke at Monday’s Common Council meeting — were bequeathing their freedom to express themselves by appealing to government officials to look past “time, place and manner” restrictions because their mural’s message is more important than a city ordinance.

In the end, the officials in both bodies did their job. Ignoring its message, Commission Chair John Splitt simply declared that the mural passed statutory muster and a unanimous vote of approval followed. And aldermen passed the consent calendar with nary a word about the mural. Good for them. Justice was blind — and deaf.

But it was scary to see citizens filling the council chamber so willingly supplicate themselves to the whims of the state, granting it power it has never possessed.

The same day the commission met, a Commonwealth letter writer bemoaned the removal of “the belief in God from Government [sic] and schools.”

Hmmm… government (with a small “g,” thank you) should tell us when and whom to pray for?

Many have fought and died for the rights and freedom we claim to cherish. Let’s not so blithely bid our liberty adieu as we sanctimoniously hide in our hypocritical foxholes.

— Tim Lyke

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