Every so often, an episode erupts that requires any American possessed of baseline discernment to take a fresh look at whether the rules, as we have interpreted and applied them, have been forged and smithed into uselessness.
As the whole country now knows thanks to an unusual burst of mainstream media attention to an issue that is – perish the thought – actually relevant, North Carolina Republicans have lately abandoned all allegiance to mere historical protocols and descended into political thuggery. The Republican attitude toward election outcomes is this: If we win, we win; and if we lose, we change the rules. As the Chimps will discuss more thoroughly in future posts, this attitude arises from an overwhelming sense of unearned entitlement: the hallmark of malignant narcissism, a disorder most commonly associated with individual humans that now marks an entire American political movement.
Having lost the race for North Carolina’s governorship, Republicans have set about to destroy the powers of that governorship before it falls into the lap of – Gasp! – the Democrat who won the election.
There will be time aplenty to dissect the politics of all this. For now, the Chimps’ primary concern is for those who were arrested while voicing their displeasure with the debasing of their democratic choice from a vantage point in the North Carolina State Capitol itself:
Constitutional guarantees and edicts are at their most powerful when we give them their purest interpretations. To that end, let’s spend a moment dissecting the First Amendment’s command that the government may not “abridg[e] the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
As the Chimps have been telling students for a couple of collective decades now, It’s all about the words. Words. Here goes: Abridge means take away or erode; freedom means freedom; speech means the expression of opinion and ideas; right means inviolable license to do; people means us; peaceably means without violence; assemble means get together in a group; petition means ask or advocate; government means those people we vote for to represent us; redress means solution or remedy; and grievance means legitimate complaint.
What the First Amendment seems to say, then, is that the government may not take away the inviolable license that we have to express opinions and ideas and, without violence, to get together in a group to ask the people we voted for to represent us to solve or remedy (or at least address, for God’s sake), our legitimate complaints against them. If the First Amendment doesn’t mean that, then what in the name of all that is holy does it mean?
And if this constitutional command does not protect people in North Carolina who get together to voice their valid objections to political thuggery and advocate for a solution right to the faces of those they elected to represent them, then who does it protect?
But alas, the Chimps are not naïve. We know the fine dust that’s soon to be kicked up by intellectual gymnasts to obscure the pristine purity of all this idealism; we’re lawyers, after all. Let’s raise and rebut just a few of the wet-blanket arguments North Carolina Republicans will seek to sling over the flames of freedom the Chimps have fanned here:
- The First Amendment only says that Congress may not do all these nasty things, and North Carolina is a STATE, not CONGRESS, so gotcha! The Chimps are not impressed. The First Amendment, if we have our math straight, preceded the Fourteenth Amendment. We’d even hazard a guess that there were twelve amendments between them. And the Supreme Court has correctly decided that the Fourteenth Amendment, which quite explicitly DOES apply to states (and North Carolina, unhappily for all parties involved, appears to fit that description), incorporates most of the Bill of Rights – including the First Amendment – against the states by using that pesky word liberty. Liberty (which states are required to honor), as it turns out, includes the freedom to speak and assemble. So inconvenient for North Carolina, we know. What a pity.
- The protesters weren’t arrested for speaking, but for failing to leave the premises after being told they were not welcome to speak; they were arrested for trespassing, not free speech. Again, the Chimps are not impressed. We get the legal theory, but this is a bit like saying that slapping a wise-ass child in the mouth for saying, “Screw you, Mom” at the dinner table is not about the “screw you,” but rather about the table.
- The State Capitol chambers are not an open public forum appropriate for the exposition of mere citizen speech. Yeah, yeah, we know all about the public-forum doctrine, but you know what? Maybe in an age where “burn it all down” is the primary objective of all Republican politics, Republicans have lost their standing to complain that the exercise of free speech might throw a big giant phallus into the grinding gears of good government.
Maybe it’s time we paid the First Amendment – designed as it was to protect our most cherished institutions – more respect than we pay to the political hacks whose visceral and manifest mission it is to destroy those institutions. Crazy times may call for crazy constitutional literalism.