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EDITORIAL: Gov. Pritzker’s wrong to give Confederate Railroad the boot

Government should pick its battles wisely and rarely when curbing free expression, and it was the Pritzker administration that booked the band in the first place.

Album cover of Confederate Railroad’s “Lucky to be Alive” LP.
The album cover of Confederate Railroad’s “Lucky to be Alive” include a small Confederate flag.
From www.confederaterailroad.com

Yes, the Confederate flag offends us, as it should offend all Americans who understand its full symbolism.

Maybe the flag is about Southern pride. Maybe it’s about that good ol’ rebel spirit. But it is every bit or more about the South’s historic defense of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, white citizens’ councils, the Ku Klux Klan, American fascism, white supremacy, white nationalism and everyday off-the-rack bigotry.

Try as they might, apologists for the flag will never get around it. As Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday, “The Confederate flag is a symbol of not just slavery, but of treason against the United States.”

Why, then, are we writing today to criticize Pritzker for banning Confederate Railroad, a country rock band that uses the Confederate flag, from performing at a state fair?

Because government should pick its battles wisely and rarely when curbing free expression, even free expression paid for by the taxpayer.

And it was the Pritzker administration that booked Confederate Railroad in the first place.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture, working with its new local fair manager, Josh Gross, announced the entire lineup for the Du Quoin State Fair weeks ago — on June 17. It scheduled Confederate Railroad to play on a Tuesday, Aug. 27.

The time to take a pass on a band like Confederate Railroad was back then. It would have been entirely reasonable for state officials to decline to book the band just because of the art on the band’s album cover, which includes a small Confederate flag.

We wish they had.

But for Pritzker to reach down from his heights now, after all the contracts have been signed, and cancel the booking for this one band strikes us as excessive government involvement in matters of free expression.

It is not strictly censorship. Nobody is saying Confederate Railroad can’t play wherever it can land a gig. The state’s just not going to book the band. But it feels to us like a poorly thought-out violation of the spirit of free speech, our nation’s most sacred principle, given that the band was hired before it was given the boot.

Government, at all levels, must always take the broadest and most tolerant stance with respect to free expression.

We would have preferred that the Department of Agriculture had not booked Confederate Railroad to begin with. We also would have understood had the department chosen not to book Snoop Dogg to perform at the state fair in Springfield on Aug. 16. Many Illinois residents are offended by the cover art of Snoop Dogg’s latest album — a depiction of the rapper standing over a corpse toe-tagged with President Donald Trump’s name.

Confederate Railroad was booked. A contract was signed.

Out of an abundance of respect for the spirit of free expression, Pritzker should have let the band play.

And let’s hope the governor’s administration thinks it all through more carefully when booking state fair acts next year.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.