Opposite of free speech

Freedom, diversity on the line in filmmakers’ case before federal appeals court.

A government that tells you what you can’t say is bad enough. But a government that tells you what you must say is even worse.

That’s what Carl and Angel Larsen of St. Cloud are up against. As filmmakers and owners of Telescope Media Group, the Larsens live and work alongside people from all backgrounds. They happily tell stories through their films for every one, no matter their ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or politics.

But while they’ll work with all people, there are certain messages the Larsens will not promote. And that’s why they challenged Minnesota’s interpretation of its public-accommodation law, which would force filmmakers like them—and indeed, all creative professionals—to promote messages that violate their core beliefs, or face steep fines and up to 90 days in jail. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit listened intently to arguments in the case this past October.

According to Minnesota, if the Larsens create a film celebrating marriage between a man and woman, they must also create films celebrating different marriages, including same-sex marriages. Many filmmakers have no problem with that. But the Larsens can’t promote those messages and stay true to their beliefs.

The government and many citizens may take a different stance, but the First Amendment says we let speakers—not the government—choose what they say. The government, in other words, doesn’t get to sit in the director’s chair.

And for good reason. No one wants a government that can force a lesbian printer to print signs for a church rally supporting marriage between one man and one woman. Or an atheist graphic designer to create websites promoting belief in God. Or an African-American filmmaker to create a documentary film series on David Duke. But Minnesota’s extreme theory requires all of this. And it also forces the Larsens, under threat of fines and jail time, to produce films promoting messages about marriage that violate their deepest beliefs.

That’s wrong. No matter what you believe about marriage, we can all agree that governments shouldn’t have that power. When governments force people to express messages that violate their deepest beliefs, they not only erase freedoms, they erode diversity. Diversity demands differences. When people are forced to think and say the same things as the government, freedom and diversity are threatened. To keep these key ingredients in our national identity, we must tolerate and respect people with whom we disagree.

In fact, the Larsens’ lives—personally and professionally—are defined by a commitment to diversity. In their work, they collaborate with people from every walk of life—including many members of the LGBT community—on a regular basis.

At home, Carl and Angel model true diversity. They have eight children (two of whom they adopted from Ethiopia), making it too difficult for them to take their kids to see the world. So instead, they invite the world to their home, regularly welcoming people into their lives who don’t share their culture, their ethnicity, or their deep convictions. Their kitchen table bears witness to their extraordinary hospitality, with signatures under the table from the 1,000-plus guests who’ve joined them for a meal over the last several years.

The freedom Carl and Angel ask for protects everyone. We’re hopeful that the court will protect their freedom. A win for them means a win for all Americans—not just Minnesotans, and not just those who share Carl and Angel’s deeply held faith.

It’s this aspect of their case—protecting freedom for everyone—that is a core motivation for the Larsens. The freedom of all creative professionals—filmmakers, photographers, writers, artists, and graphic designers to name just a few—is at stake when the government sets out to punish beliefs it doesn’t like. But free speech shouldn’t turn on whether the government or someone else agrees with the speaker’s message or beliefs. The First Amendment says this freedom belongs to all Americans.

Unfortunately, the state of Minnesota is putting Carl and Angel in a position where they’ve had to appeal to multiple courts just to keep the freedom guaranteed to every American. They’re simply seeking to peaceably live out their faith, and the state needs to respect their right to do so.

Carl and Angel didn’t surrender their freedom of speech when they started Telescope Media Group. It’s time for the state of Minnesota to recognize that simple fact and allow the Larsens to choose the content of their own films.

Jeremy Tedesco is senior counsel and vice president for U.S. advocacy and administration for Alliance Defending Freedom and represents Carl and Angel Larsen and their company, Telescope Media Group.