By Devin Rose
In the last three years, John and Mary Howell's Grove Street home has been egged and toilet-papered several times.
They've discovered flat tires on their vehicles, had lawn ornaments and an American flag stolen from their property, and been called racists and other epithets by neighbors and passersby.
And they know it's because of their political views.
The Howells are conservatives, living in the largely liberal community of Oak Park, but that hasn't kept them from expressing their opinions.
With the upcoming election looming in November, they are wondering whether their First Amendment rights are worth the potential damages.
"What price do you pay and how bad will it get?" Mary Howell asked as she sat in her home last week beside her husband.
"Why can't I have the freedom of speech that the rest of Oak Park has? It's my right, my opinion," she said.
The couple moved to a house on South Harvey Avenue in 1969 before moving to their current home in 1975. At that time, Mary Howell was a moderate Democrat and would campaign door to door in two precincts.
She said she would vote for people in both parties, but that changed with the controversy surrounding Bill Clinton's draft status in 1992.
Before the 2004 election, the Howells would get together with their mostly liberal neighbors for holiday parties and bonfires. They had a fun time discussing issues over burgers and beer, Mary said.
"It gives you something to think about — adds depth to your thought," she said about the good-spirited arguments.
The signs — a 4-by-6-foot Bush-Cheney advertisement visible from Oak Park Avenue vs. a Kerry-Edwards sign their neighbors illuminated with flood lights — also became a friendly competition.
But early one morning before the election, Mary noticed four men destroying her sign with hammers.
As they drove away, they turned the car towards her as if they were going to hit her, Mary said. Police did not write a report. The Howells fixed the sign, but it was spray-painted the next day.
Mary said she's had dozens of people wanting to take pictures with the sign she had made showing her opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
People walking or driving by have quietly told the couple that they like it but are afraid to openly admit it.
The Howells don't talk politics with their neighbors much anymore, and they think the attacks have gotten more malicious since the '04 election.
Police have told them that security cameras are their best bet against future attacks.
But they don't think they should have to hide how they feel just because they are in the minority, and the damage to their property should not put them in constant fear.
While deciding whether to speak with Wednesday Journal, Mary said she spoke with a friend who told her that if she didn't speak up, the others automatically win.
"I'm not afraid to speak my mind, but I almost was, which is shameful," Mary said, adding that once you give your freedom of speech away, "you have nothing left."