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A Hollywood Script About Free Speech in Louisville, Kentucky

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Every few years, Hollywood releases a new newspaper movie. All the President’s Men. The Insider. Spotlight. The Post. The details vary, but the plots are similar: Journalists uncover secrets concealed by powerful institutions.

Now, your opinion about these movies may turn on their details. But the general motif echoes a free speech concept: the marketplace of ideas. The theory is that we should let people share information and opinions (a free marketplace of ideas) and then trust each other to adopt the right views rather than let the government silence particular opinions. The answer isn’t censorship. It’s more speech.

Well, if Hollywood is so pro-speech, what movie do you think will be made about what’s happening in Louisville, Kentucky, where the city has banned businesses from speaking certain views?

Let’s see how this works. Louisville bans businesses known as public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of various traits like religion and sexual orientation. The same law also makes it illegal for businesses to publish any communication that indicates someone’s “presence at” or “patronage of” the business is “objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable” based on those traits.

But what happens when that law applies to people who create art or expression?

Take Chelsey Nelson Photography. Chelsey’s an entrepreneur and a new mom, trying to raise a family and pursue her dream of running her own photography studio. Chelsey specializes in weddings. She works closely with each couple, photographs their wedding, tells their wedding story in the best light possible, and then writes a congratulatory blog post about their wedding on her studio’s website,

When applied to Chelsey’s studio, though, Louisville’s law forces her to create photographs and post blogs celebrating same-sex weddings because she does the same for weddings between a man and a woman. Louisville (incorrectly) considers Chelsey’s desire to promote only one view about marriage to be illegal sexual orientation “discrimination.”

What’s more, Chelsey can’t even state her religious beliefs about marriage on her studio’s website or say that she only photographs consistent with those beliefs. All she wants to do is be upfront.

But that goes too far for Louisville. Remember, the city forbids businesses from posting statements that some people might read to suggest that their patronage is objectionable or unwelcome on account of certain traits. That language is so vague that it forbids almost anything that some might label criticism about anything related to a protected class. Who knows what’s prohibited by that. How about if a business’s website said “Christianity is wrong” or “I believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman”?

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a critical difference between refusing to serve a class of people because of who they are and declining to express certain messages. Chelsey serves all people, including those in the LGBT community. She’d be happy to edit business photographs for same-sex couples, for example. She just doesn’t celebrate every message asked of her—whether it be zombie-themed weddings (yes, things like that exist), weddings celebrating open-marriage (it’s all the rage), or same-sex weddings.

For Chelsey, it’s about what she’s being asked to say, not who is asking her to say it.

Allowing business owners to draw that distinction protects everyone’s speech rights. We shouldn’t force LGBT calligraphers to write fliers condemning same-sex marriage for a church. So why should we force Chelsey to photograph, write, and publish ideas on her blog she disagrees with?

Likewise, shouldn’t we trust individuals to choose the photographer and blogger who’s best for them? Why stop Chelsey from explaining her religious beliefs about marriage on her own website? Sure, some might disagree with her views, and some will opt for a different photographer. But that’s how the marketplace of ideas works. More speech. Not more censorship.

Courts across the country agree. A federal appeals court and the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of artists who seek the same freedom as Chelsey.

So the pathway is there. The only question is, do we trust ourselves to respect differing views about important issues like marriage, or do we prefer for the government to decide for us all?

Jonathan Scruggs is senior counsel and director of the Center for Conscience Initiatives at Alliance Defending Freedom (@Alliance Defends), which represents Chelsey Nelson Photography.

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