Our View: If you want to keep your First Amendment rights, use them

Published 9:48 am Tuesday, July 23, 2019

“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” Most people associated that ubiquitous phrase with fitness and exercise, or a learned skill like bike riding. But it applies to our First Amendment rights, too.

There’s a perfect example of using those rights in order to not lose them that made headlines last week, and it has to do with getting a tattoo in the Bluegrass State.

Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services announced July 16 that it had bowed to public pressure and removed language from new regulations that would have banned tattoos on scarred skin.

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It’s a win for freedom of speech in two ways.

First, it means our personal rights will continue to be protected. If you want to get a tattoo, you can. You can put it wherever you want on your body, and the government isn’t going to stop you. Whether or not the idea of getting a tattoo appeals to you personally, you should want the right to get one if you choose. A country where that’s not the case likely has major issues with freedom of speech and government censorship.

But the decision isn’t just an example of our First Amendment rights being protected; it’s an example of how using those rights helped protect them going forward.

After the public was made aware of the proposal — the problematic piece of which stated simply “tattooing over scarred skin is prohibited” — there was substantial public outcry.

“Opponents of the proposal have said there is no medical reason to ban such tattoos. Others have said such a ban is a violation of their civil rights, and there are already industry rules around this issue,” reported Kentucky Health News. “Still others pointed out the many reasons people want to cover their scars, including cancer survivors who want to cover their mastectomy scars.”

Just as important as the reasons people didn’t like the proposal was how they showed their distaste: The state received more than 600 public comments and almost 100 people flooded a public hearing on May 28.

“Based on comments received, we elected to remove the language relating to scar tissue,” said Dr. Jeff Howard, commissioner of the state health department, in a news release.

The state claimed the language was removed because of “a lack of available evidence to support this prohibition.” But we seriously doubt officials would have looked into the evidence or asked any hard questions about the proposal if the public outcry hadn’t been there, putting on the pressure to get it right.

With hindsight, the state clearly should have sought better information and been more careful with the wording of new regulations to begin with. Then, perhaps, the problem would never have come up. But that is simply not how the world or our government works — if it was, we wouldn’t need a word like “hindsight.”

This example should serve as a positive reminder and a sobering warning about our First Amendment: Use it or lose it. Be sure to use your freedom of speech today, so it is not taken away tomorrow.