The First Amendment is supposed to prevent the government from being able to punish citizens simply for engaging in speech that the government does not approve. Apparently, word of this 200-plus year provision in our Constitution has yet to reach the northern parts of New Mexico.
The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported the tale of longtime New Mexico resident and actor Val Kilmer and his efforts to get a permit allowing him to convert his ranch into a bed and breakfast:
When Kilmer applied for permits to turn his 6,000-acre ranch outside Santa Fe into an upscale bed-and-breakfast, several of his neighbors protested.
They weren’t worried about traffic or noise or the prospect of intruding tourists. They were incensed about comments attributed to Mr. Kilmer in magazine articles dating to 2003 and 2005. And they didn’t want him to get his way on the ranch unless he apologized…
Mr. Kilmer, who starred in “Tombstone,” “The Doors,” “Batman Forever” and, more recently, “MacGruber,” was quoted-misquoted, he says—describing his rugged corner of New Mexico as “the homicide capital of the Southwest.”
He went on to avow that “80% of the people in my county are drunk,” requiring him to carry a gun for protection. That was in a 2003 interview with Rolling Stone.
In Esquire two years later, Mr. Kilmer was quoted—again, misquoted, he says—opining that he understands Vietnam better than its veterans, because most of them were “borderline criminal or poor … wretched kids” who landed in the military because they “got beat up by their dads” or “couldn’t finagle a scholarship.”
At a hearing last month on Mr. Kilmer’s application, a half-dozen locals and veterans demanded the star apologize before being allowed to welcome paying guests onto his Pecos River Ranch. The county attorney, Jesus Lopez, backed them up. Mr. Kilmer’s quotes were “incendiary” and, dated as they may be, created a “clear and present danger threatening public safety,” he said. [emphasis added]
Taken aback by the outrage, the San Miguel County Commission opted to postpone debate on the permits. The next day, Alex Tafoya, the planning and zoning director, wrote Mr. Kilmer’s ranch manager to explain that “your application will remain tabled until Mr. Kilmer appears personally before the Board of County Commissioners” to answer questions about his alleged remarks.
Boy, wait until Kilmer has to go in to register the Batmobile.
Denying Kilmer his permit based on unrelated speech he made in the past, and furthermore requiring him to appear before them to apologize for his comments before they will consider his permit, raises all sorts of First Amendment issues. One of the issues raised, of course, is that elected officials and the government CAN’T DO THIS! EVER! BAD POLITICIAN! BAD!
When blatant attempt to punish Kilmer for his speech came up on the radar of the local American Civil Liberties Union, they offered to fly wingman for him:
The flap attracted the New Mexico ACLU, which offered to represent Mr. Kilmer, arguing that whether or not he had actually talked trash about his county, he had every right to do so without fear that his permits would be held hostage.
Unfortunately, Kilmer chose to fly solo this week, and complied with the rules of engagement by appearing before the County Commission:
Actor Val Kilmer… apologized on Wednesday for past disparaging remarks about his New Mexico neighbors, clearing a path for him to open a bed and breakfast in their midst.
Mr. Kilmer’s plans were put on hold by local officials last month amid vociferous protests from nearby residents, who said they resented a series of comments attributed to the star in magazine articles.
Kilmer’s case was obviously a unique one, though, a highly visible public figure who was quoted in two national media outlets making controversial statements. Thankfully, it’s not like there is any sort of easy way for politicians and their allies to find out about what sort of controversial political beliefs are held by many average American citizens, for which they might then try to exact retribution…