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Grace Ross: Hating the First Amendment

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Undermining of the First Amendment is getting out of control, believes Grace Ross.

It is not uncommon these days in debates about violence and gun control to hear one sector of public opinion makers describe other folks as haters of the Second Amendment. What’s really staggering to me is that we do not point out what amounts to hating the First Amendment.

The First Amendment underlies much of what our forefathers and foremothers who fought for independence understood was necessary for a healthy functioning democracy.

Whether it’s driving through Leominster or Sandwich or Amherst or any town in Maine, a common sight is the glistening white steeple of a church towering over the town hall. This isn’t a fluke; the church also served as the place where community members gathered for town discussions.

Then and now

Before the first non-violent resistance and then the better known bloody phase of the American Revolution, the people of New England were used to meeting in pubic forums—what became town meetings—to discuss public policy, debate the issues of the day, and elect their representatives to the state legislature, known then and now as the General Court.

Unlike monarchies of the time, people came to understand that this avenue of being able to assemble publicly and freely debate the issues of their time was critical to informed decision making, popular control, and government input. It is in fact the outlawing of these assemblies as much as any tax act that led to the revolt of the colony of Massachusetts against the monarchy in England.

So cherished was an understanding of the need for public debate and the right to free assembly that it forms a third of the basis of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and our Constitution. When we listened especially to Felix Arroyo as candidate for Mayor of Boston (and others after him), he spoke of the strange moment we have reached today: people’s coming together into associations got painted in the Boston Mayoral election as being more dangerous than the influence of major corporations.

The founding fathers did not trust the influence of corporate government for good reason. Yet freedom of assembly and freedom of association—the basic precepts that allow for the coming together of people into parties and political interest groups freely of their own will based on what they perceive as their own interests—as fundamental to a functioning democracy. If people are prohibited from not only disagreeing in public, but also agreeing in public and associating based on those agreements, then you simply can’t have a functioning democracy.

What Felix was referring to are those free associations—fundamentally democratic institutions brought together by people of their own free will—known as unions. For some reason, as he said, the coming together of working people is painted as more terrifying, more of an opportunity for negative public comment, than the influence of big money (even though big money is well known to unfairly influence elections all throughout our nation).

Necessary discussion

I get that unions have come together often for specific purposes that are adverse to the interests of management and owners of corporations. Like all free associations, other folks do not always like their politics.

There are as many folks who will tell you they hate the NRA as will tell you they hate the Teamsters union. We are welcome to hate the particular free associations of others as much as we want, but that does not stop them from being key building blocks of the ability of people to participate in a lively and healthy democracy.

I dream of the day when we understand that the power of other people to come together and actively and fairly participate in our elections is critical to a healthy democracy. Getting everybody who is scared of losing a job to agree to the position of large corporate leaders, a minority of the population does not give you a democracy; it gives you an oligarchy.

I am welcome to disagree with my neighbor and come together with others who disagree with my neighbor just as much as the person I disagree with has the right to come together with the people they agree with.

I guess I would simply say, get over it. Unions are as much of a democratic association as any party or any other civic association. It is time we came to respect each other as well as the wise pieces of our constitution, and engage in a fair democratic process rather than throw hatred around and try to prevent healthy debate.


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