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A reminder about freedom of speech

March 02, 2003

It is well known in city hall circles that there is a significant

learning curve for new council members. Some suggest it can take a

year or two for fresh faces to learn all the ins and outs to be

effective leaders. As a result, blunders, missteps and asking more

questions that other council members are the norm.

Still, the first few months of Newport Beach City Councilman Dick

Nichols' tenure have had more than the typical amount of slips and

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mistakes. That is slightly worrisome, but understandable. Nichols'

latest gaffe, however, comes close to crossing the line from

misunderstanding to something shocking and, in the words of Nichols'

colleague Tod Ridgeway, "repulsive."

At last week's council meeting, Nichols -- a staunchly

conservative Republican -- questioned the politics of the speakers at

the library's Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series, suggesting the

"left-wing-leaning" group be tilted more to the right to reflect

residents' more conservative views. Ridgeway, along with Mayor Steve

Bromberg, rightly pounced on this suggestion, which smacks of

totalitarian control and the worst impulses of people -- on the right

or the left -- to limit speech and debate (something that the

country's Founding Fathers also found "repulsive" and led them to pen

the First Amendment).

In Nichols' defense, he was under the misimpression that city

funds supported the lecture series (the city only puts money toward

administering the series' accounts). And his argument was to seek a

"more equitable" lineup of speakers. "[The speakers] should meet the

median of the community," Nichols said.

But, still, that is little defense for a suggestion that a

government lasso free thinking.

For -- and this cannot be stressed too strongly -- the speakers at

the series should in no way meet the middle of the community.

What makes this series such a success, and such a notable

component to Newport's fabric, is that series officials seek out

timely and thought-provoking speakers. They are not people who are

going to be preaching to the Newport Beach choir. Quite the opposite.

And quite as it should be.

To think the series -- or, by extension, any public speech --

should be otherwise is a troubling characteristic, especially in an

elected leader. Nichols, who on other issues such as the future of

the Port Theatre has kick-started interesting and lively discussion,

would do well to ponder that.

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