Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences

It is a privilege that we must decide how to wield each day


Emma Uffelman, Acalanes High School

A Highway 24 overpass near Acalanes High School has been the site of protests and counter-protests over the 2020 presidential election.

 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …” – First Amendment of the US Constitution. 

When our Founding Fathers drafted the words that would soon become the core of our American identity, they did not anticipate centuries of political change that would transform a sacred right into a tool used to spew aimless hatred in the name of political freedom. This applies to our own community near Acalanes High School in Lafayette as well. I see it in the protestors on the El Curtola Overpass who flaunt their constitutional rights like a permission slip, reveling in the knowledge that no one can stop them.

They, and many others, have forgotten that the First Amendment is not a tool or an allowance. It is a privilege that we must decide how to wield each day, for with that privilege comes the power to affect change. However we choose to employ it, we must remember that the freedom of speech is a right, not a protection from the consequences of our own actions.

The protests on the El Curtola Overpass began in August 2020 after pro-Trump groups in Lafayette attempted to garner support for candidate Donald Trump. Over the course of the last year, their signs proclaiming “Stop the Steal,” changed to reflect more current political issues such as COVID-19 vaccination and the Newsom recall election. Regardless of the content, they are always accompanied by dozens of brightly colored American flags and banners that pose a dangerous distraction to drivers below. 

While controversy surrounding the protesters may stem from a difference in political opinion, there is a deeper issue regarding the state’s complicity in illegal actions.

According to California’s Streets and Highways Code 720-734, “If any encroachment exists in, under or over any State highway, the department may require the removal of such encroachment in the manner provided in this article.” The protesters and their signs both fall into this category of encroachment, as they distract drivers and hang objects from the overpass that are a threat to traffic below.  

Since the protests began eight months ago, there have been 18 reported car accidents involving over 41 vehicles under the overpass. I personally bore witness to one of them: a devastating three-car pile-up on Aug. 25 that occurred directly under one of the weekly protests.

At various times, the demonstrations attracted counter-protesters, and interactions between the two groups quickly turned violent. In one instance, a counter-protester grabbed a flagpole and threw it off the overpass into the traffic below. At the height of the pandemic, the maskless protesters took to spitting on several of the counter-protesters, many of whom were minors.  

Not only are the demonstrations potentially dangerous, but their use of the American flag implicitly ties our sacred symbol to their illegal and harmful actions. They fly the flag from the overpass not to honor our country, but to further their own political goals. Such employment of the American flag soon perverts the meaning behind it. I no longer view our flag with pride, but with sadness, for it now represents an American identity of which I am ashamed to be a part. 

Beyond the corruption of the American flag, the protesters have tainted the image of our city through their demonstrations. Because of its location, the El Curtola Overpass acts as a welcome mat for any person passing through Lafayette, ensuring that any commuter who enters the city will be met with a screaming mob and a sea of derogatory signs. Is this the image we want to portray of our community? No citizen should ever be embarrassed to drive home in the evenings, yet I find myself dreading the moment when the first sight of the overpass appears in the distance. 

The current mayor of Lafayette, Susan Candell, attempted to resolve the issue in March 2021 but was unable to due to an unforeseen complication: the El Curtola Overpass is owned by the state, which refuses to involve itself in the situation. 

Despite pleas from the city, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), insisted on maintaining a neutral stance on the issue, claiming that the protesters are not directly responsible for any of the incidents listed above. 

This is not the first time Caltrans has refused to intervene in a politically sensitive matter. At the intersection between St. Mary’s and Moraga Road, there is a digital sign that reads “F*** Newsom”. Citizens complained about the obscene sign to the Lafayette Police, who explained that they are unable to interfere due to Caltrans’ jurisdiction over the intersection.

Caltrans’ decision to remain impartial in the face of potential backlash reflects a passivity that is increasingly prevalent in our society. When faced with a contentious issue it is easy to choose neutrality, and time and time again Caltrans has proven that they would rather remain silent than deliver appropriate consequences. In doing so, it grants an unspoken permission to the protesters and acknowledgement that their actions are acceptable. How many more car crashes must they cause? How many more laws must they break? Apathy is not a solution, and it’s time Caltrans recognizes that.