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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

We make progress when citizens tackle the small stuff

 

One of the not-so-small gifts of living in a representative democracy is that you can’t accomplish things alone. Whether you’re trying to get a stop sign put up on a dangerous corner or to change US policy on greenhouse gas emissions, you have to reach out to others. And learning how to persuade, motivate, and involve them — learning the skills of active citizenship, in other words — makes this a stronger, more resilient country.

So I want to make a case for building and using those skills by tackling the issues right in front of us. We all live in communities that we know better than anyone who doesn’t live there — including the policy makers who every day make decisions on larger issues that affect our lives there. Who better than those who live in a particular community to step up, identify its problems, and then work to solve them?

Don’t get me wrong. There are battles aplenty on the big issues of health care, education, the role of government, tax policy, foreign policy… These matter, and they require the attention of ordinary citizens as well as of political leaders and policy makers.

But so does improving the quality of life where we live. As a member of Congress, I was constantly impressed by the issues constituents wanted addressed: they were usually linked in some way to the larger issues we took up on Capitol Hill, but always approached with the unique perspective of the particular community.

These approaches ranged widely. One group’s purpose was to upgrade railroad warning lights, after too many accidents at crossings spurred them on. In a drought-stricken community, residents came together to manage the use of water in their watershed. Schools were a constant concern, as parents struggled to make sure that bright kids could be challenged while kids who were struggling or in some other way disadvantaged got opportunities to find a path to success. Hospital emergency rooms, roads and bridges, community centers and programs for the elderly… All of these commanded attention from ordinary people who identified the problem, gathered allies, debated tactics, and found a way to make their communities better.

Often these were people who were not closely connected with politics or government. They just wanted to improve something in their community, so they learned how the system works, and then learned how to make it work to help them accomplish their goals. Some of them, over time, became community leaders and moved on to school boards, city councils, and state legislatures after honing their democratic skills by working on problems of immediate concern. Others went back to their lives, pleased that they’d improved one aspect of their neighbors’ lives.

I came to see these examples as the wellspring of representative democracy.

To be sure, even at the local level, things can get complicated. It used to puzzle me when someone would come forward with an idea to improve a water system or a sewer system, and just as quickly opposition would pop up. Often this was because improvement required change – including, sometimes, a tax increase. And there will always be voices for leaving things be. But that’s the nature of the democratic process: change deserves debate, and learning to marshal facts, find and work with allies, and ultimately sway public opinion is part and parcel of living in the system we enjoy.

The more people are willing to do this, the more confident we can be that the answer to Lincoln’s question at Gettysburg — can this nation “long endure” — is Yes. It works if citizens step up to address the needs and conditions they face. Participating in the process challenges us to make our case, develop our skills of persuasion, and become better at speaking, listening, building consensus, and being an engaged member of a community.

These are the bedrock skills on which democracy rests, and the more of us who possess them, the stronger our system will be. Nothing in public life gave me greater pleasure than to see citizens in action.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Representative Government

From NBA to Trump to our ears and eyes, how free speech works

 

Let’s chat for just a moment about free speech.

Many of us have been talking about that very subject recently, from NBA stars and league executives to Chinese government officials, from President Trump to journalists and members of Congress.

Some ground rules for our conversation: The First Amendment protects us from government attempts to control what we say, or from punishment simply for having said it. Freedom of speech — one of five freedoms in the amendment — offers no protection from private companies or individuals who don’t like what we say or hold other views.

The First Amendment only applies in the United States. Other nations may have rules or laws that in some fashion say they protect or really do protect freedom of speech, but none has quite the same strong constitutional protection that we have in the U.S.

And even after 220-plus years, we’re still working out how First Amendment freedoms apply here to everyday situations. Let’s continue the conversation with some real-life examples.

The National Basketball Association has been working for several decades to build its audience in China, where it’s reported more people watch NBA games on TV than do people in this country. A carefully crafted combination of sports and marketing took a real hit in a matter of days recently, after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted an innocuous message of support for protesters in Hong Kong — who it’s worth noting, were protesting in part any attempt by Chinese officials to limit their free speech. The tweet: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

Chinese state television stopped broadcasting and streaming the Rockets’ games. Pre-season game broadcasts of several other NBA teams were dropped.

Government-controlled Chinese companies dropped their NBA-related sponsorships. Banners touting NBA stars and events were torn down from buildings. And state-owned news media called on NBA players and executives to be more “respectful” of that nation’s internal policies and to consider how “rioters” in Hong Kong pose a threat to life and property there.

China makes no pretense of protecting free speech when it involves the government’s policies there — so yet another lesson: While our freedom of speech is protected from our government, it affords no such defense against other governments.

President Trump this week threatened to sue CNN, following release of “undercover” video by the self-styled conservative media criticism operation called “Project Veritas,” which purports to demonstrate bias against him by CNN.

One hurdle such a lawsuit will face is that the First Amendment’s provision for free speech and free press don’t have a “fairness” requirement. While our laws do allow challenges to speech that is immediately threatening, or is libelous, there’s no such provision for requiring anyone — from a cable network to any one of us — to be nice or “fair” when speaking about a politician. The First Amendment does provide that Trump or any other political officeholder can use his or her own free speech rights — in his case, a Twitter account with a massive following — to counter such alleged bias.

Moving from the courtroom to Congress, there are suggestions of future laws to prevent hateful speech, speech that glorifies violence, to ban so-called “deep fake” videos (which use new technology to falsify video images and scenes) or to filter out what someone would determine are false and misleading statements about political candidates. Most, if not all, of those efforts start with good intentions: to make our society a more civil, honorable place.

But on the pragmatic level, each runs up against a free-speech concept strongly held in place so far by the U.S. Supreme Court: That such social issues and values involving free expression should be settled by public debate and discussion, not by court or legislative decision.

Yes, such debates and discussions may well have a price or penalty for participation — starting with no guarantee of civility or fair play. NBA superstar LeBron James — despite a reputation for speaking out in defense of those challenging authority — nonetheless faced a Twitter firestorm for comments he made that many saw as critical of the original Hong Kong tweet, though he denies that intent. The exchanges between Trump and his critics carry a special vitriol, which damages his reputation with some and damages his critics’ standings with others.

In the end, we all may need to see, hear or read ideas that offend, anger or even sicken us — across the widest possible spectrum of views if only, as one Supreme Court justice once wrote, to be better prepared to argue against them.

To speak frankly, that’s how free speech works.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@freedomforum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum Institute

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