Poking the bear

Published 7:57 pm Friday, December 26, 2014

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, has not often proved himself to be a friend of his Republican counterparts in the state government in Richmond. Herring and Gov. Terry McAuliffe have pushed a social agenda generally designed to appeal to the liberals in Virginia who elected them.

But in an opinion he issued earlier this week, Herring proved his regard for the First Amendment, at least, goes beyond pure partisan politics. Responding to a request from Delegate Rick Morris (R-64th), Herring ruled that the Isle of Wight County Fair Committee had acted unconstitutionally when it denied Morris access to the fair this year.

In July, Morris asked to rent a booth at the Isle of Wight County Fair in order to raise money for a nonprofit organization for abused and neglected children and to disseminate information about state business. The fair committee refused his application and stated that no elected official or political organization would be allowed to have a booth at the fair, and the county’s Board of Supervisors declined to overrule the decision.

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In the months following the fair, however, after Morris had put the question to him for a ruling, Herring wisely concluded that barring Morris and other politically oriented organizations from setting up booths at the fair was a violation of the right to free speech that is guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment.

“Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and political speech is at the core of the protections offered by the First Amendment,” Herring stated in his opinion. “When government regulation of speech is based on the content of speech, the regulations will be strictly scrutinized and the government bears the burden of proving the constitutionality of its actions and it must demonstrate that the regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

Isle of Wight officials could show no such compelling interest in banning political speech at the event, so Herring’s correct course of action was to opine that their actions were unconstitutional. That decision might open the door for political messages — and perhaps others that are even more repugnant to fairgoers — but it was the right ruling, nonetheless.

Still, we can easily imagine a situation in the years to come in which Morris and other conservatives might wish the delegate had not poked the free speech bear by demanding their right to spread their message at the fair. Having now confirmed that the annual family event is just another venue where people and organizations of all stripes can vie for attention, Morris and other conservatives should not be surprised at the people and messages sent to overshadow their own.

Now that the bear is awake, there’s no way to ignore it.