Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dissent is Patriotic on Independence Day

The following was written by "On Liberty" blogger and ACLUM Executive Director, Carol Rose.

This weekend we celebrate America’s tradition of public dissent as an act of patriotism.

The Declaration of Independence was a public airing of grievances against the British crown, notably taxation without representation. It was penned in 1776 by a "Committee of Five" – notably, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman.

Jefferson and his gang are heroes now. But at the time, they were reviled by many as radicals, free-thinkers, trouble-makers or worse. In fact, when the actual vote to ratify the Declaration took place, a bunch of delegates to the Continental Congress either voted against it or simply didn’t show up.

I’m proud to say that the Massachusetts delegation was the first to vote to ratify the Declaration of Independence – thus making our Commonwealth once again first in the nation when it comes to freedom. And I’m thankful that the tradition of public dissent continues today.

In the last week alone, I’ve heard of three separate instances here in Massachusetts in which citizens exercised their right to free speech and, in so doing, showed themselves to be modern-day patriots.

The first involves a teenager and his mother who questioned mall cops for selectively harassing kids wearing rock band t-shirts in a shopping mall. The second involves two high school teachers who dared hold up "End War" signs at a mandatory school assembly while school officials dressed in combat fatigues were on stage. The third began when a high school student sought to have the Pledge of Allegiance broadcast daily into every classroom on a school intercom and right-minded school administrators responded not by silencing the student but, instead, by offering to host a voluntary pledge in the gym each morning for those who wish to partake in the oath.

Each of these cases shows the critical role that free speech continues to play in ensuring freedom in 2010 America. The people involved deserve to be known as "True Patriots."

Our first True Patriot award goes to Richard and Cindy Gould of Hyannis. Their exercise of free speech started in the Cape Cod Mall when Richard, age 18, bought a t-shirt at the mall that featured a musical act, the "Insane Clown Posse," which depicts an abstract silhouette with a hatchet – pretty mild stuff as rock band t-shirts go. After making his purchase, Richard donned his new t-shirt and walked through the mall.

Within minutes, a mall security guard -- in what can only be thought of as a classic Paul-Blart-mall-cop moment --demanded that Gould either turn the t-shirt inside out or be expelled from the mall. The mall cop then accompanied Gould to the bathroom, then stood and watched as Gould turned his shirt inside out.

Mall officials said they were concerned that the t-shirt might be a gang symbol. Of course, that didn’t stop them from selling the t-shirt to the teenager in the first place!

But the story gets better. Gould’s mom, Cindy, filed a complaint with the mall managers and then donned the t-shirt herself, paraded around the mall, and found out that she wasn’t hassled at all. Apparently, mall cops think it is perfectly fine to sell the t-shirts to teenagers and then watch as they strip down in the bathroom, but don’t dare take on their angry mothers.

My favorite line from this story came from Barnstable police Sgt. Sean Sweeney, who was quoted as saying, "It's not like there's that kind of gang around here. ... We do have a lot of clowns, though." No kidding!

Our second True Patriot Award goes to two teachers from Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, history teacher Marybeth Verani and English teacher Adeline Koscher, who weredisciplined by school officials for silently holding up a sign that said "End War" during a mandatory school assembly to salute students entering the military after graduation.

The teachers silently stood at the back of bleachers and held up their "End War" sign only during the portion of the assembly when a school-based police officer and an assistant principal (dressed in military fatigues) were on stage praising students for joining the military. Once the school officials finished their public speeches, the two teachers also sat down and took their sign down while the students were honored. There was no disruption, the teachers were silent, and they didn’t block anyone’s view.

Nonetheless, the teachers were punished for their expressive conduct by being placed on administrative leave and unpaid suspension. It seems pretty clear that this was content-based punishment: do you think the teachers would face similar discipline if they had held up a "Support Our Troops" sign? Of course not.

Some wooden-headed types have suggested that the teachers are unpatriotic. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you agree or not that an "End War" message actually does support our troops (and I know a lot of military families who think the current war in Afghanistan is bad for our troops) there is nothing more patriotic or more American than public dissent – and shame on anyone who says otherwise. Verani and Koscher are True Patriots.

Our final True Patriot award goes to the town of Arlington, and notably the High School Principal Charles Skidmore, who found a way to protect both free speech and religious liberty when high school student, Sean Harrington, asked that the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag be broadcast on the school intercom each morning. Harrington has every right to lobby for a flag pledge. But Arlington school committee officials correctly considered the danger of putting undue pressure on students whose religious or personal views prevent them from taking oaths to a flag.

In the end, Arlington High School principal, Skidmore, wins the True Patriot award becausehe offered to lead a voluntary recitation of the pledge in the school’s auditorium each morning – thus ensuring both freedom of speech for Harrington and others who wish to take the public oath and the right of other students to be free from compelled government speech. In so doing, Skidmore showed a deeper patriotism than can be found in cloth symbols and mandatory assemblies: he upheld the principle of individual liberty.

The Declaration of Independence in 1776 launched an important American tradition: public dissent as an act of patriotism. Thanks to these and other modern-day patriots, the tradition lives on.

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