ELKHART — Free speech is one thing.
A controversial billboard message here paid for by a tea party group — ostensibly to get the vote out — is going too far, though, Clarence Moseng thinks.
“To me, I think they should tear it down. To me it’s an insult to Elkhart County,” the Elkhart man said Monday. “I don’t mind elections, but we don’t need this kind of stuff.”
The billboard, reading “The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America... The voters must remove the other,” has generated support from many. Others, though, don’t like it, and about 25 of the critics, including Moseng, converged Monday afternoon below the billboard at Nappanee Street and John Weaver Parkway to protest.
The demonstrators — who organized via Facebook and word of mouth — included Elkhart County Democrats, Occupy Elkhart activists and a candidate for a seat in the Indiana Senate, Democrat Jim Ball. They held signs expressing their displeasure, generating a few honks and at least one shout from passing motorists.
“I am highly offended at that sign,” said Doris Stickel, a retired teacher and another demonstrator. “It’s ignorant.”
The message, put up earlier this month, was paid for by We the People of Marshall and Fulton counties, a tea party group. The head of the organization, Don Nunemaker of Plymouth, said late last week that the message was meant as a call for action at the ballot box on Election Day, Nov. 6.
He was vague about the threat voters are to “remove,” saying it’s up to individual voters to glean what they will from the message. He didn’t immediately return a call Monday seeking comment on the demonstration plans.
Some of those at Monday’s protest, though, took the message as an inappropriate attack equating Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, killed last year at the hands of Navy SEALs, with President Obama.
“I think that’s rather out of line,” said Adam Bope, an Occupy Elkhart activist sporting a mohawk. “To take something that extreme, that’s pretty bad. (Bin Laden) killed how many people?”
If the tea party group means to encourage voting, added Tom Butler, “that’s what they should say. They’re adding militaristic jingoism.”
Dwight Fish, secretary of the Elkhart County Democratic Party, said the billboard creates a tone of “fear,” while Ball called it “the wrong message.” Ball, from Middlebury, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Kuwait and is challenging Republican Carlin Yoder, also of Middlebury, for his Senate seat.
“This is not why I went to those places, this kind of hate,” Ball said.
The protest unfolded largely without incident. One motorist, though, stopped to investigate and when told what the flap was about, expressed his opposition to Obama, using a racial epithet, according to Bret Null, one of the demonstrators.
Zanzer Anderson, another demonstrator, overheard the man’s remark.
“I said, ‘Oh, really,’” said the Elkhart woman, who’s African-American. “He got in his car and left.”
FREEDOM OF SPEECH
The vociferous opposition at Monday’s demonstration notwithstanding, the billboard message has generated plenty of support from many. While critics have the right to protest and demonstrate, the tea party group behind the billboard has a right to speak out as well, the supporters say.
“I think it’s fine... They have the right to say that,” said Sue Chilberg, who’s active in the Tea Party of Michiana Action Coalition, or TEA-MAC, an Elkhart County-based tea party group. She sees the billboard message as a call “to do something about the very real threat of socialism.”
Chilberg noted charged messages coming out of the Democratic camp, including a controversial and disputed ad suggesting GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was somehow responsible for the death of a woman who had cancer. “No one says a word about that,” Chilberg said.
Similarly, Pete Rechhio, also active in TEA-MAC, said at the heart of the matter is the First Amendment right to free speech. “So that’s the beginning and the end of the comment,” he said.