Report from a small town: The First Amendment works

By Douglas Lee
Special to the First Amendment Center Online

Those of us who study the First Amendment tend to focus on events of national significance. We debate U.S. Supreme Court rulings, deride officials who silence dissent in the name of security and decry judges who refuse to respect journalists’ promises of confidentiality.

That focus, of course, is appropriate. These judges and officials every day determine the extent of our First Amendment rights. To fully appreciate these rights, however, we occasionally need to exchange our national perspective for a local one and observe regular people speaking about a community issue.

I recently was one of those people. The issue in my community — Dixon, Ill., a town of 16,000 about 100 miles west of Chicago — was a threatened teacher strike. As president of the school board and spokesman for the board’s negotiating team, I found myself in the middle of the controversy.

Like many public officials, my initial reaction was to discourage — and if possible avoid — a community debate about the issues that separated the board and the teachers union. These issues, after all, were complicated, and I thought any public debate about them was likely to be uninformed and counterproductive.

At the same time, however, I could not ignore the importance of the free-speech rights I’ve advocated for years. How many times have I argued that the First Amendment secures the free flow of information necessary to sustain a democracy? How many times have I written that the First Amendment encourages citizens, through their expression, to become more engaged in issues that interest them? Couldn’t the First Amendment work as well in Dixon as it has elsewhere?

The answer, of course, was yes. Although I doubt many saw it in these terms, the debate that engulfed my community became a celebration of everything the First Amendment guarantees. While far from orderly, that celebration reminds us of the many and varied ways the First Amendment protects — and ensures — our ability to govern ourselves.

Interestingly, the debate over the teacher contract involved each of the First Amendment’s five freedoms. The freedom of speech was the most prominent, exercised in everything from traditional handbilling, guest columns and letters to the editor, to local Web sites and the bloggers who hammered on issues (and a few nonissues) covered in the newspaper’s reporting.

The freedom of the press was right behind, seen in the newspaper’s almost daily reporting and its two editorials. The teachers and the public also exercised their freedoms to assemble and petition, as they engaged in informational picketing, packed board meetings, implored the board to settle the dispute and circulated and presented petitions. Even the freedom of religion was heard from, as many congregations prayed for a settlement.

Other First Amendment issues were involved, as well. One of the hottest free-speech issues today is the extent to which the First Amendment protects speech — both regular and symbolic — in public schools. In our debate, the issue was teacher speech, not student speech, as many teachers wore buttons urging respect for the union and dressed in black on days of negotiating sessions. Teachers were directed not to discuss the possible strike in their classrooms, but they struggled to fend off inquisitive students, many of whom delighted in the turnabout of seeing their questions make teachers squirm.

We also learned to live with personal attacks. Since first reading the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, I have agreed with the court that the First Amendment’s commitment to “uninhibited, robust, and wide open” debate requires that critics of public officials be allowed great latitude. My critics certainly enjoyed that latitude, often attributing to me things I didn’t say, accusing me of things I didn’t do and judging me on facts they misunderstood. I tried not to take it personally, but the spotlight sometimes made me wish the debate were a little less robust.

We even experienced a taste of the debate over cameras in the courtroom. A television crew taped one of our board meetings, and, though the crew was unobtrusive, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some of the comments that night were more dramatic than they would have been otherwise. We also noticed that the television coverage of the story — which stereotypically featured video of picketing teachers and soundbites from each side — paled in comparison to the in-depth coverage of the newspaper.

Fortunately for all involved, a strike was averted. I don’t know that the public’s involvement caused the settlement, but I do know our community is significantly better informed than it was even a couple of months ago. Many of us now will turn our attention to other issues. Before we do, however, I hope we take a minute to appreciate that none of the handbilling, public speaking, news reporting, picketing or blogging would have been possible without the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.