Free Speech and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt

The story of Oliver Sipple is nothing short of heartbreaking: “… the random blonde guy who just happened to be standing next to Sara Jane Moore that day.”  Sara Jane Moore served 32 years in prison for an attempted assaination of, now former, US President General Ford. On September 22nd 1975, both Sara Moore and a Vietnam war veteran, Oliver Sipple, waited outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, CA for President Ford to step out.  Moore shot a revolver at Ford and missed. After the first shot, Sipple reached for Moore’s arm, quite possibly saving the presidents life. This heroic act resulted in Oliver Sipple raising to public-figure-level fame overnight. What came with this sort of attention was the lack of protection under the first amendment for Sipple, and according to Sara Moore: “he paid dearly for that.”

While Sipples family knew he was an all American Hero, what they did not know was that Oliver Snipple was gay.  San Francisco, CA was one of the most accepting places in the 1970’s for LGBTQ+ people. But when Snipples heroic act hit the news cycle it wasn’t long information about his sexual orientation did too.  Reporters from some of the most major papers in the country ran front page headlines about the “Homosexual Hero” and his heroic acts. Within a matter of days after saving the President of the United States life, Oliver Snipple had been ostracized by his mother and father.  The strain of being disowned by his parents and other familial and friend relationships reached the point where Snipple was suffering a mental break. Frequent visits to the hospital, maternal abandonment, and social ostracism, even within his LGBTQ+ circles led Snipple to sue for $15 million in damages against the papers who ran these stories that to him “invaded his private and personal life.”  

At the same time, Snipple was used as a tool of representation, in the eyes of journalists and activists.  Here was a gay man, patritoic, brave, and selfless. Snipple was fighting in court for nine years and eventually the case was dismissed.  

Snipple died only a few years later at age 47.  In the later years of he was consumed by alcoholism.  Before listening to the podcast I had no idea about the assasination attempt, let alone this man’s life story.  What it reminded me of was the article I wrote about last week that talked about the recent Supreme Court hearings on a case of potential discrimitation based on sexual orientation in the workplace.  What is deemed acceptable public and private, like was summarized in the podcast, is dependant on the political and cultural context of the time. It was politically relevant to showcase a gay man as a patriotic hero at the time, in the eyes of journalists and activists.  But at the same time, the cost of this representation was the relationships Snipple had with his family, and inevitably his life.  

There is no perfect system to grant journalists the authority to cipher what is worth covering for the greater good.  That is the risk we all take by participating in an imperfect system because at the end of the day — if not the journalists, then who?

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