Noisemakers and free speech


I’m writing in response to an incident which occurred during a recent Escanaba/Gwinn basketball game. Late in the game the public address announcer, whom I believe to be the athletic director, singled out a woman in the stands and publicly admonished her for using a plastic noisemaker to express her support for her team. Not surprisingly that made the woman uncomfortable. Since she had seen no signage in the building nor heard any previous announcement regarding the use of noisemakers, she had used the device to cheer on her team for nearly the entire game without incident. Following completion of the game she sought out the athletic director to gain a clearer understanding of the nature of the infraction. After a brief discussion the woman felt the athletic director dismissed her with condescension.

This incident may seem trivial on its face, just another example of a person in a position of authority making a clumsy attempt to enforce an arbitrary rule with a lack of aplomb.

However, I believe there is a larger issue at stake. This is a First Amendment issue regarding freedom of speech/expression. The Michigan High School Athletic Association seems to have ruled that shouting, screaming, clapping, whistling, and the stomping of feet are all forms of protected free speech which can be actively solicited by the cheerleading squad, but the use of a plastic noisemaker is not. We all know there are limits to free speech, yelling fire in a crowded theater being the most commonly given example.

I can understand the desire to limit annoyances during a basketball game. Some cultures celebrate events with gunfire, others with the use of fireworks. No one would doubt the MHSAA’s right to prohibit celebratory gunfire and the throwing of lit firecrackers in the name of public safety. But I would argue the use of plastic noisemakers threaten no one. A more appropriate action may be to place signs respectfully requesting that, out of respect for others in attendance, patrons refrain from the use of plastic noisemakers.

The original intent of the First Amendment may have been to protect political free speech, but our society has expanded its meaning beyond that intent. The Supreme Court has ruled that a group of Neo-Nazi skinheads carrying swastikas on a march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie Ill.

Considered in that light are we expected to believe a woman in a public gymnasium expressing support for her team during a high school basketball game by shaking a plastic noisemaker is not engaged in a form of protected free speech?

Once again our society finds itself in an epic struggle for its direction.

The country has elected as President a man who believes the interpretation that the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties that says what the federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the government must do on your behalf. That interpretation certainly turns the original concept of limited government on its head. Going forward our society must decide what direction it will take.

Are we a nation of individuals responsible for our own actions, successes, and failures, or do we all belong to the Government and serve for the needs of the “greater good?”

To some this will seem like an overwrought reaction to an insignificant matter. Maybe, but I take the time to write this because I believe this is a grave matter that today’s high school students must begin to face for it will have a tremendous impact on their futures.

I don’t know if high schools still have anything in the curriculum resembling a Civics course, but I believe since some of the students may have attended the game and witnessed this anecdotal event, this would be an appropriate introduction to the Constitution, its intent, and its effect on all our lives.

Brad Stried