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Are we rationalizing yet another excuse to limit free speech, and not speak out?

by Conrad F. Goeringer
July 27, 2020

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

-- The First Amendment
We are just days -- hours, really -- away from the start of the year 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Already, journalists, pundits and delegates are pouring into this city, and hopefully some of them will break away from their hotels and press conferences to head over to Independence Hall and absorb some long-forgotten history. This city is supposedly the cradle of American liberty. It was here that many of the details of the Constitution were laboriously hammered out in 1787. Shortly thereafter, the Bill of Rights was framed and approved by the states, putting some constraints (in theory, anyway) on the powers of the government. Those who wanted a strong, centralized state insisted that there was little need for such amendments, but fortunately the anti-federalists prevailed. Mindful of the mistakes of Europe, they knew that it was essential for rights to be spelled out, least they be ignored or legislated out of existence by those in power.

Two hundred and thirteen years later, there will be a test of some of those rights as thousands of people gather in Philadelphia. I’m not talking about those Republicans and sound-byte journalists; and by the way, these remarks can also apply to the Democrats and their entourage when they assemble in two weeks in Los Angeles for their coronation of Al Gore. A lot of the people heading to Philadelphia are being described as “protesters,” “demonstrators,” and even “potential troublemakers.” We might as well throw in the T & A words, “terrorists” and “anarchists.” In fact, these are thousands of people who represent an astonishing variety of causes and organizations, united perhaps only by the fact that they disagree with something which the Republicans stand for. A lot of that disagreement will carry over to the Democratic Convention next month, simply underscoring the fact that the major political parties and their two presumptive candidates share much in common -- more, perhaps than the people who wll protesting their respective conventions.
Joing res. of Congress proposing 12 amendments

American Atheists will be marching this Sunday, July 30, as part of the Unity 2000 demonstration. Go down the list of organizations that will be joining in, and the array of different causes is staggering. Groups representing environmental awareness, animal rights, labor unions, economic causes, office workers, abortion rights, welfare moms -- you name, they’ll be there. This is so eclectic that the anti-abortion folks, obviously worried that George Dubya was going to pick a pro-choice running mate (he instead settled for Dick Cheney, who is anything but...) were ready to join in the Sunday festivities, but decided at the last minute that they would rather spend their time disrupting traffic on the already-congested freeways. Add to this the nearly three dozen or so speakers slated to address the rally at the end of the Unity 2000 march and you get some idea of how mixed this event really is. If you’re like me, you might agree with about 50% of what all the picket signs and banners will be proclaiming. You can almost “pick your issue” in this political belief bazaar, which is really a public celebration of First Amendment speech.

Some people seem to be forgetting that fact, including the cops, government functionaries and even certain of the media. The demonstrations planned for Philadelphia and Los Angeles are being cast in a negative light, and compared to the “riots” which hit Seattle earlier this year when protesters spoke out against the World Trade Organization meeting. A handful of people may have decided that the local Starbucks or newspaper stand was the most immediate and tangible manifestation of the brave new WTO order, and acted accordingly. The cops, obviously caught off guard, went wild. Pretty soon, some of the demonstration turned into a street brawl, and naturally this is what the news cameras quickly focused on.

There is a not-so-subtle message now being echoed in news coverage about the Philadelphia and Los Angeles events that people should not protest for fear of violence. “Something might happen.” “Things could get out of hand.” The “same people” it is said who “started the problems in Seattle” are now in town, ready for an instant replay. Words like “demonstrator” and “protester” have the same overtone as the neighborhood paedophile, or perhaps a fatal case of Legionaires Disease.

In Los Angeles, the paranoia of public officials and convention planning gurus has gotten so out of hand -- well ahead of any actual events -- that, in grudging deferment to the First Amendment, they actually tried to engineer a series of ersatz demonstrations far from the eyes of Democratic delegates, in what amounted to holding pens. Hollywood is used to cattle calls, but those are for actors seeking the coveted role of an extra in some movie, not American citizens taking peaceably to the streets to express their views. A federal judge has thrown out the Los Angeles Police Departments scheme to concentrate the protests so far from the convention site that any demonstrations would be poorly attended, and lack any focus whatsoever. This would be the equivalent of demanding that The New York Times be dispensed only through unmarked vending machines located at the tip of Long Island.

We now have the dangerous precedents of “demonstration free” zones around over-priced hotels and glitzy convention venues. We also have government officials warning that it is the supposed excess and consequences of free speech, those vague and often undefined threats of terrorists and ruckus makers, which requires that we have less (not more) of it. Picket lines, protests, loud and enthusiastic demonstrations -- in other words, the sort of expression guaranteed in the First Amendment -- is being portrayed as a liability and defect that can get “out of hand” any time. There is an official, almost cavalier insouciance about what all this means for free speech the rest of our civil liberties.

There is a not-so-subtle message now being echoed in news coverage about the Philadelphia and Los Angeles events that people should not protest for fear of violence. “Something might happen.” “Things could get out of hand.”
Not all atheists are going to agree that marching on Sunday is a good thing. American Atheists is no stranger to the picket line, considering that Madalyn O’Hair led a demonstration outside the White House in the late 1960s, that we picketed the pope in 1980 (and have done so at every subsequent papal visit), and that the organization has held countless other protests over everything from the persecution of feminist-freethinker Taslima Nasrin to the antics of the Promise Keepers. Earlier this month, Henry Morgan and the Michigan Atheists threw up a picket line outside the Westland City Hall to protest a scheme to have Christian prayer recitation at local government council meetings. John Messina in California is now as regular as the Winter Solstice, and for the past several years has been joined by Dave Kong and supporters in demonstrating against the San Jose nativity creche. A tip o’ the hat -- or should it be the picket sign? -- to all of you!

A lot of atheists may not be used the habit of speaking out in such a public fashion. There’s plenty of interest in debating the finer points of theology; just witness the plentiful exchanges on internet forums on questions involving the Ten Commandments, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and nagging questions like “Can you prove god doesn’t exist?” Most Atheists and freethinkers seem comfortable on that level. We flock to conferences, conventions and debates, maybe occasionally write a letter to the editor on the finer points of the evolution v. creationism flap.

That’s all well and good. Demonstrations are not for everyone. It is still possible to be relatively comfortable being an atheist, and it is also easy to blend in against the background of the larger culture. All you have to do is not say anything or speak out too loudly. “Taking it to the streets” is only one of many ways to build a movement, spread ideas and raise issues. Maybe there is a lesson for atheists to learn here, by looking at the experiences of all of the other groups and cause organizations that have gone this route, and will be heading down that same road on Sunday.

There may also be another good reason to show up to the “Defending The Wall” protest in Philadelphia, though. Freedom is a problematic and almost fickle thing; ignore it, fail to exercise it, neglect it and it soon vanishes. Government and politics elites are adroit at concocting excuses for why people shouldn’t speak out, at least too loudly and boisterously, or too frequently. It may offend the tourists, it might provoke the cops, or result in too much overtime for harried officials. And what better way to defuse any exercise of free speech than by suggesting that you might get maimed, gassed, clubbed, arrested, or come to some other physical harm -- not necessarily because of what you or even the police might do, but because of other protesters? That’s a new one for the history books.

There are people who showed up at the Seattle WTO protests intent on knocking heads and causing trouble. Some had badges, others didn’t. Tens of thousands of people, from students and union members to academics and full-time moms still managed to demonstrate peaceably and express what was on their mind. You might not have agreed with the message (I’m not sure the anti-WTO folks make much more sense than the World Trading Organization does...), but they had every right to deliver it.

The same goes for Sunday’s action in Philadelphia, and the protests later next month in Los Angeles. Warning that “some protesters” may get out of hand or cause trouble are a lame excuse for suggesting that people who would otherwise speak out should not show up and instead remain silent. If the warnings are true, giving in means that violence freaks, in or out of government, have won. If the warnings are fabrications, and this would certainly not be the first time, and people fail to speak out, the First Amendment is a bit weaker as a result.

Atheists have always enjoyed a close connection with the notion of freedom of speech. “Blasphemy” laws are still on the books in some states though they are rarely enforced. In Europe, the idea of filtering “hateful” speech that might offend some particular ethnic or religious group is gaining in popularity. Globalization means that this same sensibility might become an in vogue, politically correct cause here in the United State. A recent survey indicated that disturbingly high percentages of Americans want restrictions on everything from the internet and television to news reporting and video games. Actress turned animal rights protester Brigitte Bardot was recently convicted in France of “offending” Muslims because she criticized the ritual sacrifice of animals. In England, it is against the law to “blaspheme” Jesus Christ or the Anglican Church. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others -- rather than sensing the danger to civil liberties inherent in such legislation -- are clamoring to have their doctrines and institutions covered by the blasphemy statutes. If you head to Philadelphia, you might know that across the Delaware River in neighboring New Jersey, a man named C.B. Reynoldswas prosecuted for Blasphemy after being arrested for trying to give a series of freethought lectures. He was unsuccessfully defended by Robert Ingersoll; it was the first and only time in courtroom for “The Great Agnostic” on such an issue and, fortunately, the last known prosecution for blasphemy in the United States. A bill in at least one state legislature, New York, would bring back the statute.

I can think of plenty of good reasons to join the action and defend Jefferson’s wall. Consider the burgeoning movement to bring back coercive prayer in the public schools, or display sectarian religious documents in government building, or pass “special rights” legislation on behalf of faith-based groups like the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Add to this the very real prospect that since the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, “Charitable Choice” schemes are throwing open the gates of the public treasury to sectarian groups. You and I will, increasingly, see our taxed money used to finance a slew of “partnerships” between government and religion along with “faith-based” social programs. The Sunday collection plate is headed our way, and donations are mandatory.

These are state-church separation issues, of course, but they are not the only reason why you might consider marching on Sunday. Perhaps the best reason is that if you have something to say, if you disagree with the agenda of either the Republicans or the Democrats, you might want to speak out. You might also consider Sunday’s protest as a kind of cardiovascular work out for the First Amendment. People taking to the streets to express their opinion, the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances is supposedly what the great American experiment, with all of its flaws and strengths, is really about. If we can concoct and accept flimsy reasons for why we should not exercise the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, well, we might as well just forget the rest.

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