Little ribbons caused big controversy in Litchfield, Connecticut.
For almost 20 years, yellow ribbons adorned the town square’s trees. But in January, the warden quietly took them down. The locals aren’t happy.
Why? It has to do with free speech.
As early as the time of North America’s Puritan colonies, yellow ribbons symbolized support for loved ones away at war. Today, the symbol lives on, honoring military members serving far from home.
These yellow ribbons were placed in the Litchfield Town Green in 2003, during the war in Iraq. Litchfield officials aren’t concerned about what the ribbons mean. They care about what else could happen if the ribbons stay.
“When it comes to a public space like that, if you allow some speech you have to allow all speech,” says acting Warden Gayle Carr, who removed the ribbons herself. If Litchfield allows a good message, like that of the ribbons, then the town must allow every type of message. Maybe even bad ones. Otherwise, it’s discrimination. Litchfield would be choosing what people can say, and that’s against the law.
So how can Litchfield prevent bad messages without discrimination? It’s easy: Don’t allow any messages in the Town Green at all—at least, not permanent messages like signs, placards, and yellow ribbons. Litchfield residents can still express military support in the Town Green with marches, vigils, and picket signs.
But to some residents, that’s not enough. They call the ribbon removal a slap in the face to military personnel and their families. For them, these five yellow ribbons—one for each branch of the military—carry a deep meaning.
The yellow ribbons have caused controversy before. Litchfield also tried to remove them in 2009, leading to a local uproar and national news coverage. Town officials agreed to let five ribbons remain. In 2012, they attempted to remove all but one of the ribbons. Again, residents spoke out, and the ribbons stayed until this year.
Are the ribbons now gone for good? That’s up to Litchfield to decide.
The United States has laws to protect free speech. The Bible says that death and life are in the power of the tongue. (Proverbs 18:21) Free speech is a powerful thing. People can use it for good—such as honoring those who serve their nation—or they can use it for evil.
To the officials of Litchfield, the right to post signs and ribbons in the Town Green has too much power for evil. It’s safer to ban such speech altogether.
But if it’s that safe, is it still free?
Why? Free speech always carries risk, but it still is a right that must be protected. People can be so afraid of bad speech that they also silence good speech.
Actions have consequences. Click to see a bubble map that shows how one event (town officials removing yellow ribbons, for example) can lead to another.