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FIRST-PERSON: Participatory democracy, on display

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Three important aspects of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution are that Congress shall make no law abridging 1) “the freedom of speech,” 2) “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” or the right 3) “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

With the aforementioned phrases, America’s founders established that citizens of the United States would be free to debate, disagree, dissent and even denounce the actions of government. The right to take issue with elected officials was one of the fundamental rights the founders believed had to be protected.

The First Amendment has been interpreted to protect every form of vulgarity imaginable. However, I believe the intent of the founders was primarily to protect political speech. They had chaffed under the oppressive hand of a tyrannical government that punished dissent. They wanted something entirely different to prevail in America.

While there has been no legislation passed restricting the ability of American citizens to question or criticize governing officials, given some lawmakers reactions to recent public gatherings one cannot help but get the feeling that there are some elected officials who would like to censor free speech.

At recent town hall meetings designed to discuss the government’s proposed health care reforms, legislators have been getting an earful. And many of them don’t like it.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., encountered a standing room only crown in Philadelphia. Those in attendance wanted answers on proposed health care legislation and when they perceived they were not being taken seriously, they expressed their outrage verbally.

When Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, arrived at a gathering of the public in his home state, he was greeted by zealous constituents denouncing proposed health care reform. Many in the crowd chanted, “Just say no!” Other elected officials have had similar receptions.

The dissent of the public is not sitting well with some in government.

The public denouncing of proposed health care reform is, according to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, nothing more than “Astroturf.” In other words the concerns being expressed by citizens at town hall meeting aren’t really grass-roots and certainly aren’t worthy of madam speaker’s consideration.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seemed to agree with Pelosi when he dismissed the dissent as “manufactured anger.” Others agreed by insisting those packing the meetings are nothing more than “mobs” organized by lobbyists.

Pelosi characterized those expressing outrage at town hall meetings as “right-wing extremists.” She decried the drawing of devils horns on the pictures of elected officials and said Nazi swastikas were being seen at meetings.

So, are the crowds organized? So what if they are? Is there anything inherently wrong with citizens organizing to express dissent? The left has done this for years, only they call it community organization.

I plan to attend a town hall meeting of one of my senators on Aug. 8. No organization has contacted me. I am going because I am not pleased with the current direction of health care reform.

I don’t doubt there are some attending the town hall meetings that are acting less then civil. There are always a few bad apples in every barrel. That said, to dismiss everyone at the public gatherings as “right-wing extremists” is condescending and insulting.

The first time I heard any reference to swastikas being used was when Ms. Pelosi announced it. Has a swastika been brandished at a town hall meeting? Perhaps, but most likely it has been far and few between. That said, to suggest that most people at the meetings are Nazi-like is unconscionable. The point that they are making concerns fascism and socialism, not racism or bigotry.

To put this in context, Pelosi represents the city of San Francisco, which plays host to a huge “gay pride” event each fall where nudity is not uncommon and sex acts take place on public streets. Of course, she has yet to speak out negatively about the event.

The fact of the matter is that a majority in the United States are displeased with proposed health care reform. A recent Quinnipiac University poll revealed that 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling health care.

America is a republic predicated upon participatory democracy. Many citizens are packing town hall meetings in an effort to have their voices heard. When they perceive that elected officials are unwilling to listen, they are becoming frustrated and they are letting that fact be known.

During a speech in 2003, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said, “I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration, somehow you’re not patriotic.” She continued with force, almost screaming, “And we should stand up and say, ‘We are Americans and we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration.'”

I couldn’t have said it any better.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs