It’s wrong to ban Fair visitors for speaking up

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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Randy Evans
Executive Director
Iowa Freedom of Information Council

This year’s Iowa State Fair received spotlight attention from coast to coast, thanks in large measure to the presence of just about everyone with an itch to be the next United States president.

The Iowa Tourism Office could never afford all of the glowing imagery of Iowa and the fair that was sent around the globe this month --- the shoulder to shoulder crowds, people enjoying corndogs and pork chops on a stick, and judges rendering decisions in all manner of contests, from cakes to cantaloupes to cattle.

Shoe-horned into this Norman Rockwell-esque portrait this year was an unfortunate incident that showed an embarrassing lack of understanding and appreciation for the important role freedom of speech plays in our state.

The incident occurred Aug. 18 when Wheaten Mather, 40, of Des Moines, was doing what thousands of people did at the fair that day: This transplant from Michigan, by way of Los Angeles, was back sampling this Iowa spectacle.

Mather’s visit that day was unremarkable --- until he bumped into Gary Slater, the State Fair’s chief executive. Mather took the opportunity to discuss something that had bothered him since he witnessed it nine days earlier at the fair.

Following their conversation, Slater summoned a State Fair police officer, who told Mather he must leave the fairgrounds immediately and was barred from ever returning.

What was Mather’s offense that led to this lifetime expulsion? Was he in a fight? Was he drunk? Did he steal from a visitor? Did he disrupt one of the fairgrounds shows?

No. It was nothing like that. Mather’s “offense” was exercising his right to freedom of speech.

Wheaten Mather had the temerity to ask Slater, the fair’s CEO, to meet with him some time to talk about a cellphone video Mather recorded nine days earlier while wandering the fairgrounds. That video showed a boy striking a pig on the face with a “show stick” because the animal was refusing to get into a trailer.

The incident left marks on the pig’s face and raised Mather’s blood pressure. Mather told the Des Moines Register he isn’t an animal rights activist, but he wanted to find out from Slater what the fair intended to do to prevent such incidents in the future.

I’m not here to defend Mather’s point of view of that incident. I’m not here to question the boy’s actions. Those are matters for his parents, State Fair officials, and 4-H and FFA leaders to sort out.

I am confident the boy will learn from the incident with the pig. I wish I could be as confident that Slater and State Fair police will learn from their interaction with Wheaten Mather.

Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental rights our Founding Fathers incorporated into the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It was intended to allow the citizens to freely offer their opinions and suggestions to government officials without fear of official recourse --- recourse like being prohibited from attending future State Fairs.

It’s important that we defend that right to speak freely, even if the message being communicated is one we don’t agree with --- because, if we don’t, the speech being stifled the next time might be our views.

Mather told the Register that Slater initially was tolerant of his questions about the incident with the boy and the pig. But he said Slater became annoyed when Mather persisted and pressed for answers about what the fair will do about the incident.

Minutes later, Slater summoned the police officer, who told Mather he was being expelled from the fairgrounds for life. Mather left without incident.

He told the newspaper: “I said, “That sounds pretty harsh,’ and the officer said, ‘You’re harassing people.’ I said, ‘I was having a conversation.’ ”

Mindy Williamson, the fair’s marketing director, was with Slater when the incident occurred. She said Mather was more combative than he described to the Register.

“It was not a situation where he was looking for input or listening to the policies and protocols we have in place,” Williamson told the newspaper. “It was a little threatening.”

It’s important to note that Mather was not charged with a crime before he was expelled.

Free speech takes many forms--- some we agree with; some we may not like --- that are all legal.

The form could be John and Mary Beth Tinker of Des Moines, who won the right in 1969 for students to wear black arm bands in their public schools to protest the Vietnam War. Or it might be Homer Martz of Calhoun County who was charged in 2016 with flag desecration for flying his U.S. flag upside down, next to China’s flag, to protest a controversial pipeline crossing his land. (The charge was dropped, because the Iowa law had been declared unconstitutional.)

Or free speech could take the form of Jon Goldsmith of Red Oak, who was charged in 2019 with harassment for comments on Facebook that were critical of Adams County sheriff’s officers.

Goldsmith won an important victory for freedom of speech in May. Adams County dropped the harassment charge, paid $10,000 in damages, and agreed to school its officers on the public’s First Amendment rights.

Rita Bettis Austen, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa attorney who represented Goldsmith, said: “People have a constitutional free speech right to criticize their government. Police are not allowed to charge people with crimes because they annoy the police or say things the police disagree with. There is no exception because someone expresses anger in inartful ways, causes offense, or uses curse words.”

I think State Fair officials would benefit from refresher training on people’s freedom of speech rights before next year’s crowds converge on the fairgrounds.

And Wheaten Mather should be allowed to attend the fair whenever he wants.

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This column was written by Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. It is available for publication by any newspaper without charge.

Randy Evans can be contacted at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com. The Iowa Newspaper Association and several individual newspapers are members of the Iowa FOI Council.