Friday Mailbag: Tornado warnings, free speech and early voting

A tornado-warned supercell passed by Grand Forks on Monday, June 8, prompting a tornado warning. / UND Atmospheric Sciences

MINOT, N.D. — Welcome to Friday, you lovely people.

Another week has come and gone, and that means another column responding to your questions and feedback. If you want to participate, email your thoughts to I'm getting a lot more submissions than I have room for in this column, but I try to respond to everyone anyway.

Remember, your submissions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Mike writes: Headline from a Grand Forks Herald online article this afternoon (June 9): "Thousands ordered to shelter in place as tornado-warned supercell passed by Grand Forks Monday." Ordered? Has COVID made unconstitutional stay-at-home orders so widely accepted that the assumption from the Herald news department is that a tornado warning from the NWS is the same as ordering people to take shelter? There's no mention of any order in the article, as if it's just understood. Sad times. Or poor editing. Maybe some of both.

I wouldn't typically respond to this sort of critique -- I'm not involved with the Herald's news department, and I certainly don't want to speak for them -- but I do think Mike's complaint touches on something I've written a lot about over the years.


It's the question of choice versus force.

Many in our society are far too enamored with the government forcing people to do things. How often, when confronted with something they don't like, do we hear people say some variation of, "there ought to be a law." Which means they think the government ought to step in and force a stop to the offending behavior.

At times that's appropriate. We do need laws, but that shouldn't be our first reaction. We're a lot better off when we can persuade people to make different choices.

The coronavirus is a perfect example of this. Some parts of our country saw government officials try to enforce quarantine policies with an iron fist. Not only does this contribute to our society's problem with trust in law enforcement (how happy do you think cops are to enforce policies against illegal haircuts?), but it isn't an effective way to lead.

I spoke about this with Gov. Doug Burgum on a recent podcast.

His administration guided us through the coronavirus pandemic with a light touch. What they relied on, mostly, was North Dakotans choosing to take the appropriate precautions to slow the spread of the virus, as opposed to doing it because they were afraid of fines or even arrest.

That's how real leadership works. We're always better off with choice than force.


This is why trust in government is so important. If the weather service were always crying wolf about inclement weather, the public might stop to heed their warnings, which would exacerbate the human suffering around something like a tornado. We need the public to trust institutions, like the weather service, so that when they give the public a warning, the public will trust and heed it.

John writes: I've been a fan and reading your posts for several years. You hit the mark most of the time. This article disturbed me. While riots are certainly unwarranted in civil society, are we crossing a line on free speech? I may not like what you say, but you have every right to say it, and I have every right to agree or disagree with you verbally. I disagree that those in power should penalize us for stating our opinion. Thanks, and keep up the good work.

John is referring to my June 9 column headlined, " We have to leave some room for redemption." My point in that piece was that, while there should be consequences for racism, we should also leave the door open so that those guilty of doing or saying stupid things can redeem themselves.

Sort of a "hate the sin and love the sinner" argument.

John felt my talk of consequences for racists might have been a departure from free speech principles.

I believe in the First Amendment, not just as a law prohibiting the government from restricting essential liberty, but as a societal principle. Private citizens, and private businesses, have no duty to abide by the free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution, but I feel they should aspire to those principles anyway.

Still, none of us is obligated to associate ourselves with views we find hateful. If I were a business owner, I would not want to employ a racist. I would not patronize a business owned by a racist. I would not attend an event put on by a racist group.

These are choices we can make as individuals, and I don't think they abridge anyone's free speech rights.


But we shouldn't ostracize racists. We should refute them. We should try to lead them away from hate. That starts with leaving open a path to redemption.

For those interested in this school of thought, you should watch "Accidental Courtesy," a documentary about black musician Daryl Davis and all the friends he's made in the Ku Klux Klan.

We should all be more like Mr. Davis.

Collin writes: I know that campaigns are too long. I know that they are scripted. I know that candidates repeat his/her talking points ad nauseam. I know campaign ads are tedious and misleading if not downright false. I suppose that is the price we have to pay for democracy. Having said that, I look at campaigning as a crucible for the candidates. In a crucible, the essence of the matter is distilled in the heat. A campaign is like a crucible, in that candidates are distilled to their essence -- some times. To get back to the early voting (and voting by mail as related) issue one thing that early voting does is cuts short the campaign, which in turn does not allow time for a full vetting of a candidate, which in turn can (rarely but it does happen) reveal a candidate's true self or at least more of his/her character.

Collin is responding to my last Sunday column about early voting , and he makes an excellent point.

The campaign process, with all its mudslinging and folderol, can feel tedious at times. A detriment to our democratic efforts, not a boon. Believe it or not, as Collin describes, it does serve a purpose.

Sometimes the mudslinging is valid, highlighting consequential problems with the candidates voters ought to be aware of and consider. A rough-and-tumble campaign can also sometimes penetrate the oil-slick veil of imperturbability politicians shroud themselves in and reveal something real.

It's rare, as Collin notes, but it happens. And when it does, that's worth the price of admission.


Also, running a successful campaign requires a degree of leadership and organizational acumen which someone aspiring to elected office ought to have.

People like early voting and voting by mail because it's convenient. But our convenience may not be the most critical consideration in the electoral process.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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