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Curmudgeon's Corner: The concept of 'free speech' still confuses some (OPINION)

February 1, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist has so dominated the media the last two weeks that I am beginning to wonder whether The Providence Journal is the house organ for the ACLU.
Federal Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled that a banner that begins with “Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen” is a violation of 16-year old Jessica Ahlquist’s rights which the judge said is not allowed under the doctrine of separation of state and church under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
A third year student at Cranston West High School, the loquacious and vivacious Miss Ahlquist claims that she has been an atheist since age 10 and was offended when someone pointed out the “prayer banner” to her. It didn’t seem to matter to the judge that the banner had hung in the auditorium for over 50 years and the plaintiff didn’t even notice it during her first two plus years in the school.
It also didn’t matter that the vast majority of students at Cranston West have no problem with the banner. Judge Lagueux ruled “the constitutional rights of a minority” trump those of “a loud and passionate majority”. I submit that he could have used those two adjectives in his opinion when referring to the minority whose rights he was protecting.
The Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment simply and directly provides that the state shall not prescribe or endorse a single religion. It was the principal author of the Constitution, James Madison, who wrote, “the [religious] devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.” The words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution itself.
Note that groups such as American Atheists, American Humanists Association and the ACLU, all of whom support Miss Ahlquist, claim that the First Amendment requires the separation of state and church from their viewpoint that the religious devotion of the people needs to be decreased. That way, you see, the people’s dependence on the government will be increased.
The Supreme Court has ruled (Cox v. New Hampshire) that the First Amendment ensures the right of the people to peacefully assemble to express their ideas and unity in support of issues.
When school reopened after the Martin Luther King holiday, administrators and police prevented some Cranston West students who wanted to stage a walkout to protest the court’s ruling and resultant covering of the prayer banner. Contrast this with the student walkouts such as in Central Falls to protest the layoff notices sent to the faculty at that city’s high school a year ago.
The First Amendment also provides that “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Over the years the courts, including the Supreme Court, have issued interpretations usually restricting the people’s rights under this part of the First Amendment.
This is especially true of students’ rights of free speech. For example, a student cannot be required to recite the pledge of allegiance and may wear a black armband or burn an American flag (presumably outdoors) to protest a war. On the other hand, a student may not burn his draft card, use obscene words at a school-sponsored event or advocate the use of illegal drugs in a school newspaper. Nor can he or she wear a tee shirt with an American flag to school on May 5th in California because it might offend Mexican-Americans.
As a society we seem to be conflicted on “freedom of speech”. Some years ago a pro-gun group put a billboard on Route I-295 with the words “Those in favor of gun control raise your right hand” superimposed on a photograph of Adolf Hitler rendering the Nazi stiff-armed salute. Understandably this offended Jewish groups and after protests by the Jewish Defense League, whose motto is “Never Again”, the sign was taken down.
Conversely, no person or group seems offended by the billboard in support of Judge Lagueux’s ruling which reads, “Keep Religion OUT of Politics” put up by the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Miss Ahlquist reports that she has received threats on social networking sites which prompted police presence at her high school. No one should condone such threats.
Of course, the ACLU and others asserted that these words fall under recently enacted “anti-bullying” legislation.
The ACLU’s Steven Brown decries the lack of outcry by Cranston officials against the alleged threats directed to Miss Ahlquist.
Apparently, these officials are to be vilified for speaking out against the judge’s ruling and condemned for remaining silent about the consequences of the ACLU’s and Miss Ahlquist’s court action.
It should also be noted that a verbal threat coupled with the ability to carry it out is subject to criminal prosecution as assault. If there is no ability to carry out the treat the person so threatened can seek redress under a civil tort action. I’m sure the ACLU’s “volunteer lawyer” is capable of representing Miss Ahlquist in such an action which would extend this young woman’s 15 minutes of fame and perhaps put a few bucks in her pocket and the ACLU’s.
In our prevailing politically correct culture, our elected representatives have been pressured into enacting “anti-bullying” laws. Similarly, we also have “anti-hate speech” laws. Both of which were offenses under existing laws.
Whatever happened to the little poem kids were taught in their early years in elementary school: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”?
Come to think of it, I just noticed on the side of the paper currency in my wallet opposite the picture of a dead president the words, “In God We Trust”.
I think I am offended.
Does anyone have Steven Brown’s phone number at the ACLU?

n In its January 13th edition, the state’s daily newspaper carried a syndicated editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich.
The cartoon shows two tombstones on one of which is depicted the Statue of Liberty and the word “Democracy”. A couple is contemplating the grave marker with the woman saying “…and she OD’ed on corporate cash…”
The neighboring tombstone shows a characterization of Elvis Presley. I suggest Mr. Luckovich could have substituted, say, an image of the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial over the word “Freedom”. The man in the cartoon could be seen thinking something along the line “…and it was lost due to union donations…”
Employers are required by law to confiscate dues and turn them over to labor unions, both public employee and private sector, where the money can be used to support the Democrat party and its liberal – sometimes socialist – candidates. Often those supported are not the choice of many of the rank and file members.
To further illustrate the power of unions, the North Kingstown school department by agreement allows the NEA-RI, including its political action committee, access to the district’s email system in order to communicate with its members. These messages are typically left-leaning, pro-Democrat and pro-Obama exhortations.
Imagine the outcry if the local or state GOP, Tea Party or Young Republicans were given equal time.

Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. His opinions are his own. He can be reached at

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