I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.
— attributed to Voltaire
Last night, something happened that has me writing about something other than autism. Two women were ejected from the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives shortly before President Bush gave his State of the Union address. Both committed the crime of wearing t-shirts with messages.
One of the women was Cindy Sheehan, who has famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) protested the ongoing war in Iraq by demonstrating outside of just about anywhere the president happens to be. Ms. Sheehan was sitting in the gallery as the guest of Representative Lynn Woolsey of California. The t-shirt she wore depicted a number: the number of United States military personnel that have been killed in Iraq, one of whom was Ms. Sheehan’s son.
The second woman was Beverly Young, the wife of Republican Representative Bill Young of Florida, who happens to be chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee. Ms. Young’s fashion faux pas was wearing a t-shirt reading “Support the Troops — Defending Our Freedom.”
According to the Associated Press, Ms. Young was told that “she was being treated the same as Sheehan.” That’s not entirely accurate, in that Ms. Young was merely escorted out into the hallway where she argued with the Capitol Police. Ms. Sheehan, on the other hand, was handcuffed and booked with something called “unlawful conduct.” But the disparity in the treatment is unimportant. A wrong was inflicted upon both women, and through them, upon the nation.
Ms. Young is understandably upset at being asked to leave for silently proclaiming what she considers to be a positive message. And Ms. Sheehan maintains that she had no intention of being disruptive.
Predictably, the politicians closest to the incidents are squawking, and missing the point. Rep. Woolsey issued a statement decrying the action against Ms. Sheehan, and opining that the arrest was simply because of a disagreement with the Administration. That, of course, ignores the ouster of Ms. Young. For his part, Rep. Young spoke from the House floor, stating that his wife was taken away because “she had on a shirt that someone didn’t like that said support our troops.” That misses the point that two women, espousing different views, were escorted out of the House Chamber — a place that should not only tolerate, but encourage freedom of speech — because they engaged in non-disruptive acts of political speech.
The one thing said by any of the politicians with which I can agree was spoken by Rep. Young during his diatribe from the floor: “Shame, shame.”
The war in Iraq divides this country. Like most of you, I have strong opinions about the matter, but those opinions aren’t important to this discussion. Likewise, the substantive opinions of neither Ms. Sheehan nor Ms. Young should make a difference when deciding whether you feel their ousters were appropriate. All Americans should be angry about this.
The State of the Union, as political as it may be no matter which party is in power, should be considered a celebration of our constitutional government and the freedoms we are guaranteed as citizens of this most wonderful country. The First Amendment protects all speech — political speech in particular — without regard to how offensive some may find it. Of course, no freedom is absolute; that is, a distinction must be drawn between “freedom” and “license.” If the physical security of an event is actually threatened, there is no question that speech can be curtailed. And arguably, an event like the State of the Union should be free of disruption. But sitting quietly in a t-shirt threatens neither safety nor decorum.
That no real crimes were committed is evident by the charge entered against Ms. Sheehan: “unlawful act.” By definition, committing an unlawful act requires that another law be broken. Yet there was no other charge entered except of an “unlawful act.”
This may sound extraordinarily trite, but it bears saying anyway. Clamping down on constitutionally protected free speech, regardless of the content, is a slap in the face to the men and women who sacrifice themselves while serving this country. On that, Ms. Sheehan and Ms. Young should both agree.
About a week ago, I took Camille Clark to task for what I considered to be a tasteless and cruel post on her blog. To her credit, Camille left comments on the post trying to explain her intentions. Although I appreciate and respect her willingness to offer that explanation, I strongly disagree with Camille. But that being said, I will gladly take on anyone who would deny her the right to speak her mind.
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The Capitol Police have apologized and acknowledged that the ejection of these women should never have taken place.
“The officers made a good faith but mistaken effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol,” Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said in a statement late Wednesday.
“The policy and procedures were too vague,” he added. “The failure to adequately prepare the officers is mine.”
Chief Gainer’s explanation confirms my opinion that the crimes committed by Ms. Sheehan and Ms. Young were non-existent. Having the chief fall on his sword before the press may forestall any real debate about the incident, and that’s too bad. I would still like to hear why the police seemingly all believed that wearing t-shirts with messages on them deserved arrest.
The State of the Union address is not something new; it happens every year. And every year it seems that there is some issue that draws fire upon whatever Administration is in office. I find it hard to believe that no thought has ever been given to making the “policy and procedures” a little less “vague.”