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A teachable moment

Free speech is something we as Americans love to pat ourselves on the back for — and rightfully so. The right to freely express oneself is enshrined in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution; it’s right there alongside protection for a free press and freedom of assembly and religion.

We are indeed fortunate to have this right, especially during times of deep political division like the one we’re in right now. That’s why it’s disappointing to hear from our local police department that two juveniles admitted to stealing 25 yard signs expressing support for President Trump’s reelection this past Sunday. Other yard sign thefts have recently been reported in this area, and Sunday’s spree seems to be an unfortunate escalation in that trend.

Of course, it’s important to remember that juveniles engage in stupid acts of petty crime all the time, whether it’s doing brake stands and whipping doughnuts with their cars and trucks or throwing eggs at people’s houses. But the act of stealing political signs — especially for one particular candidate — seems to suggest that these youths are not just interested in random mischief. In some small way, they want to silence support for a president they presumably don’t like very much.

To be clear, it’s totally fine to despise this president or any other sitting president. You should always be free to criticize and protest elected officials — even in provocative ways like mockery and satire. But no one should feel like they have the right to go onto someone else’s property and yank a sign out of their yard. That’s crossing a line into depriving others of their right to express themselves. It may seem like a largely inconsequential prank, but it sends the message that the perpetrators have no respect for the views of people they happen to disagree with.

Our hope is that other young people look at what these two juveniles did and realize how wrongheaded it is for up-and-coming citizens of a democracy. Unfortunately, this tendency to want to silence “the other side” is far too prevalent in our society right now. It runs all the way to the top, as seen by Tuesday night’s food fight of a presidential debate. President Trump had to be repeatedly told not to talk over his opponent, Joe Biden, who also occasionally violated the rule of allowing each side to have two uninterrupted minutes to respond to each question.

The media was quick to bemoan this lack of civil discourse, with many pundits calling the debate “embarrassing” for the world’s reigning superpower. In many ways, though, it wasn’t a surprise. With all of that has happened this year— COVID- 19, impeachment, racial unrest, protests, riots and raging natural disasters — every political discussion has the potential to become superheated within a matter of minutes. But we can’t allow terrible circumstances to cause us to abandon our common commitment to the principles our nation was founded on.

And, yes, that begins with confronting something as seemingly small as yard sign thefts. We hope that our local history and social studies teachers — and educators in all subjects — instruct their students on the importance of vigorous yet respectful debate. No teacher likes to be interrupted while they’re speaking, and no school would tolerate the destruction or theft of textbooks. In return, we hope that students are given opportunities to appropriately express themselves.

Shouting someone down or stealing their yard sign is not free speech. It is the opposite. The emotion that goes into these actions is understandable, especially with a high-stakes election just about a month away. But now more than ever we need to be teaching our young people the right away to disagree. Like most things, that starts at home and in the classroom.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien