Our View | Clenched-Fist Salutes and the First Amendment

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By The Signal Editorial Board

It’s not often that the flag salute in a school board meeting makes news. But that’s exactly what’s happened this month as a video has circulated of the flag salute at a recent meeting of the Saugus Union School District’s board of trustees.

In the video, newly elected board member David Barlavi is seen participating in the flag salute along with his fellow school board members — but one thing is different about Barlavi’s participation:

He’s got his right hand over his heart, and his left hand held high above his head, his fist clenched.

The video came on the heels of a photo of Barlavi displaying the same gesture while participating in the flag salute at a Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency meeting in January. That photo circulated online and drew the ire of a group of protesters who saw the clenched fist gesture as being disrespectful of the flag and the military, and inappropriate for the setting.

For his part, Barlavi says he displayed the clenched-fist salute not out of disrespect, but as an expression of his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Several of the protesters turned out for the Feb. 5 SUSD board meeting to voice their objections — as is their right to do. 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Barlavi’s right to raise his fist, and it protects their rights to object to his doing so.

But, some of the comments went too far. One protester said, “Someday you’re going to run across the wrong person, and he’s going to … I don’t know what he’s going to do… but it’s not going to be good for you.”

Those words were ominous- sounding enough. But, Barlavi says, it got worse after the meeting — to the point where he filed a report with the SCV Sheriff’s Station saying he had received more than 10 death threats as a result of his clenched-fist salute.

A video of the Feb. 5 meeting was posted to YouTube and drew hundreds of comments, including one that said, “This joke should be hanged at the closest light post.”

Such posts, and any death threats Barlavi received directly, are way out of line.

Are they credible threats? That’s for law enforcement to ascertain. Regardless, it’s clear that many of the reactions to Barlavi’s clenched fist have been outsized and fail to take into account Barlavi’s constitutional right to free speech. All too often, people forget that having the right to free speech means that others do, too, even if we may find their speech reprehensible. 

Make no mistake: We don’t endorse the way Barlavi has chosen to express himself. It seems plausible that he’s done it as much as a ploy for attention as to make a political statement, and a supposedly non-partisan school board meeting isn’t a good fit for this particular form of expression. It’s a gesture that’s generally perceived as an aggressive one, and is subject to a wide range of interpretations. Google it — the clenched fist has been used at many different times and for many different purposes over the past couple of centuries. It can have multiple meanings, some of which are in contradiction with each other. 

But that’s just not the point here. The point is, Barlavi should be able to clench his fist without fearing for his safety.

The First Amendment applies to everyone, including elected officials like Barlavi. 

How you exercise your right to free speech can, of course, have consequences. Imagine your own workplace: Can you exercise your free speech rights while at work, in any way you wish, and still keep your job? Can you march through your place of employment and stage a protest any time you want, without consequence? Odds are, you can’t. You have your constitutional rights, but employers also have the right to set certain standards of on-the-job conduct, whether you agree with them or not. If you’re not convinced, ask Colin Kaepernick. 

The same thing applies here. As an elected official, who does Barlavi answer to? The voters of Trustee Area No. 1 in the Saugus Union School District. 

Barlavi was exercising his First Amendment rights, but if voters disapprove of his choice in exercising his rights in that manner, during school board meetings, they can remove him from office.

His critics, too, have First Amendment rights of their own. He can raise a clenched fist, and they can criticize him for it.

But, our First Amendment rights are not absolute. When you demonstrably put others in danger — the old “yelling fire in a crowded theater” example comes to mind once again — you’re infringing upon their rights. Terrorist threats are not protected speech.

Anyone who suggests that Barlavi should be physically harmed, or worse, as retribution for his clenched-fist salute should face consequences of their own — the legal kind.  

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