The Whitefish City Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution supporting diversity and tolerance in the community, taking a stance on an issue that has roiled local residents in recent weeks but stopping short of enacting anti-discrimination legislation aimed at so-called “hate organizations.”
The council passed the good faith resolution after city staff determined an anti-hate or nondiscrimination ordinance protecting the community from such groups would not survive the scrutiny of the constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment.
With the council chambers packed for the second consecutive meeting on the issue in two weeks, residents again turned out in high numbers, urging the council to adopt the resolution and praising council members for their swift and thoughtful action.
Seated adjacent to the podium was Richard Spencer, the prominent white nationalist whose decade-long presence in Whitefish prompted the impassioned dialogue between community members and city officials.
Spencer was the first to speak at the podium on Monday night, and applauded the council for its consideration of the resolution, which he called “a pleasant surprise” in contrast to the “no-hate” ordinance that some residents had urged the council to adopt, effectively barring Spencer and his think-tank, the National Policy Institute, from doing business in Whitefish.
Although the full scope of a no-hate ordinance was never clear, proponents said they had not intended to infringe on Spencer’s First Amendment rights, but rather exhorted the council to take a strong stance against movements that promote racial, religious or gender bigotry.
Spencer said an anti-hate ordinance aimed at groups like his would amount to the council legislating the right to “police our minds.”
“I give my enthusiastic support of this resolution. I urge you all to vote for it. The motion is vague, but I agree with its spirit. We should celebrate this,” he said. “But real diversity includes thinking differently. Real diversity is not people of all different shapes and colors acting the same way. That is the diversity of a Coke commercial.”
“I think cooler heads have prevailed,” he concluded.
According to the adopted resolution: “The Whitefish City Council declares its support of Whitefish community values that recognize and celebrate the dignity, diversity, and inclusion of all of its inhabitants and visitors, and condemn ideologies, philosophies and movements that deny equality of human rights and opportunities and challenge our Constitutional freedoms granted by the United States and the State of Montana, and protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to exercise their civil rights, including the rights of free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from discrimination.”
It continues: “Nothing in this Resolution is intended to alter or abridge other rights, protections, or privileges secured by state or federal law, including state and federal constitutional protections of freedom of speech, assembly, and exercise of religion.”
The resolution comes on the heels of public testimony delivered during the council’s Nov. 17 meeting, when dozens of Whitefish residents spoke out, passionately urging council members to create some type of anti-discrimination legislation.
Many of the speakers identified themselves as members of “Love Lives Here,” a Flathead Valley affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, a statewide organization focused on equality and monitoring hate groups. While some sought a positive statement from the council affirming civil rights, they expressed concern about the possible misconception of the values embraced by the community of Whitefish that are friendly, tolerant and welcoming of the diversity of its inhabitants and visitors.
In particular, they said recent local and national headlines about Spencer and the National Policy Institute being headquartered in Whitefish had portrayed the community in the wrong light.
Ina Albert, co-founder of Love Lives Here, emphasized that it was not the group’s intent to hinder free speech, but rather to make its clear that the community “will not stand by without loudly protesting a political ideology” like Spencer’s.
Whitefish City Attorney Mary VanBuskirk said a Montana law called the Montana Human Rights Act already prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, religion, color, or national origin, or because of age, physical or mental disability, marital status, pregnancy, or sex.
She said if it is the council’s intention to extend unmet civil rights and nondiscrimination protections in the Montana Human Rights Act to every person in the city’s jurisdiction, it should consider including a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through a nondiscrimination ordinance.
The council said it would consider such a nondiscrimination ordinance at a later date.
The tone of the testimony was a slight departure from that featured at the previous meeting in that several speakers, while condoning neither the actions and ideas of Spencer nor the members of Love Lives Here, expressed concern that a nondiscrimination ordinance, or any action by council, would infringe upon the right to free speech.
Joe Coco, a Marine who served in Desert Storm and other conflicts, said he did not advocate for either side.
“But I am an advocate for freedom of speech and the First Amendment,” he said. “When I was overseas I didn’t always believe what I was fighting for, but I did it because I believe in our rights as citizens of the United States. Passing this would be an embarrassment to the community.”
Councilor Frank Sweeney, who moved to adopt the resolution and amended it with stronger language, said that while it “demonstrates our hopes and values as a city,” it does not mean the community is impervious to movements promoting intolerance.
“I urge you to remain attentive and even vigilant to who might come into our community,” he said.