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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Does a good cause require bad speech?

In this column I explain why it disturbs me so much that opponents of Ashland’s Ordinance 3176, which is up for renewal, keep referring to it as “Stop and Identify.” Be it noted that the opponents include organizations I support, such as Peace House and the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene. They include people with whom I have worked on issues like raising Oregon’s minimum wage and dealing with chemical addiction and mental illness as public health issues. Our communities have been well served by their passion for justice.

It’s not their opposition to the ordinance that disturbs me, although I think it a reasonable ordinance. It has not given Ashland police a new tool to oppress people of color and others who historically have been victims of abusive law enforcement. Actually, there was only a brief period when people being cited for municipal violations in Oregon couldn’t be required to give police their names and dates of birth. Before then, the enforcement mechanism was significantly harsher than it is in Ordinance 3176 (a Class A misdemeanor versus a Class C misdemeanor), and I never heard an outcry about it.

But thoughtful and well-intentioned people can disagree about public policy. In many cases it’s hard to be sure whether a proposal will enhance or diminish justice. And that is my starting point for this reflection. Acknowledging that the quest for right understanding can be difficult requires those in the public forum to habitually exercise two traits. One is humility. The other is to speak as accurately as we can.

One requirement of humility is to acknowledge that we may be wrong. If we stay in public life long enough, it’s almost certain that at times we will be, no matter how thoughtful and well-intentioned we are. In a column last year, I shared with you my error in supporting mandatory minimum sentences, which I thought would promote justice but, as implemented, wreaked great harm. I didn’t think that error disqualified me for any further involvement in public life, but it underscored the importance of listening carefully to dissenting views. That is the second requirement of humility, to recognize that, as we Quakers say, everyone has at least some portion of the truth.

The other trait required of us by the difficulty of arriving at the best understanding of public policy is to speak without intentional distortion. “Stop and Identify” is a distortion of Ordinance 3176 — and I think an intentional one. It is being used to equate the ordinance to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s notorious “Stop and Frisk” policy, which police used as a tool for oppressing the same classes of people the opponents of 3176 claim the Ashland ordinance will oppress. Those leading the opposition know very well that 3176 permits officers to ask for name and date of birth only if they are in the process of citing a person for a municipal violation.

Mislabeling or mischaracterizing a legislative proposal is both easy and pernicious. Witness the 2001 PATRIOT Act, a sustained attack on civil liberties that most members of Congress didn’t even read before approving. And the first bill Republicans offered to replace the Affordable Care Act was called the Health Care Freedom Act; the Senate nearly passed it. Before one can have useful discussions of such proposals, one first must scrape off the layers of distortion.

My progressive friends, I know you can do better than this. I wish you would.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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