Free speech is for all of us, including Barronelle Stutzman, a Richland florist who declined to provide artistic floral arrangements for a gay couple’s marriage.
FREE speech is the First Amendment’s “majestic guarantee.” Popular votes and the outcomes of elections, for example, cannot strip away the right of each one of us to think differently from our neighbors and express our views — no matter how unpopular — without fear of punishment. That is why, in our country, citizens unhappy about the outcome of the presidential election are at liberty to peacefully protest in the streets, and artists like elite fashion designer Sophie Theallet, who has often dressed first lady Michelle Obama, are free to refuse to associate with the incoming first lady, Melania Trump.
Some would call Theallet’s rejection of Melania Trump “discrimination.” Laws certainly exist in our nation that would seek to block her choice. But as Theallet recently explained in an open letter, her fashion designs are “an expression of [her] artistic and philosophical ideas.” Her family-owned business is “not just about money.” So she took public measures to protect her constitutionally protected “artistic freedom” and to protest ideas with which she disagreed.
Barronelle Stutzman did the same when she kindly referred a request for artistic flower arrangements celebrating a longtime friend and customer’s same-sex wedding to three of the many other floral design artists in the area. Stutzman designed custom floral arrangements for the two men for nearly a decade, including Valentine’s days and anniversaries. That would not have happened had she desired to discriminate against those who identify as gay. But the conviction of her heart is that marriage is between one man and one woman, so Stutzman stood up for her artistic and religious freedom and politely declined to celebrate a marriage ceremony with which she disagreed.
Rather than receive the public acclaim reserved for members of the liberal elite, Stutzman was taken to court by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who threatened to take away everything she owns — not just her business (her livelihood) but her retirement savings and even her home. He did so while freely acknowledging that Stutzman’s living botanical sculptures are protected speech just like other abstract art. So the state’s message is clear: Dissenting views about marriage will not be tolerated. If that means kicking a 72-year-old grandmother out on the street, so be it.
Stutzman’s case should be deeply troubling to all of us. If the government can punish Stutzman for her artistic choices, it can punish Theallet for hers as well. The attorney general made that clear in a court hearing just a few days ago. When justices of the Washington State Supreme Court asked Ferguson whether it would make any difference if Stutzman had been asked to spell out “God bless this marriage” in flowers or if she had been selling custom poetry celebrating weddings instead, his answer was firmly “no.” As in the old Soviet Union, even poets have to toe the line to preach the state’s message.
Ferguson even went so far as to say that a voice-over actor could be forced to use his voice in a political ad promoting a candidate’s stance on marriage. In the real world, what that means is that an atheist singer could be forced to perform at an Easter worship service and a Muslim graphic designer could be compelled to design a website for a Jewish “friends of Israel” group. Astounding.
This position is no less than the end of free speech as we know it. Artists do not lose their First Amendment freedoms merely because they go into business to support their families. Free expression is not just for the rich who create art at leisure, nor is it reserved for liberal icons like Theallet. Free speech is for all of us, including Stutzman.
All those who care about individual liberty and artistic freedom should support her, while there is still free speech left to save.