Last week, Geneva found itself at the center of a debate on the rights protected under the First Amendment. That’s an issue close to this editor’s heart. The First Amendment is painted on the wall of our newsroom, a constant reminder of its importance to our business and our democracy.
This particular community discord came after a lone man, armed with a sign and a body camera, positioned himself on a city sidewalk outside a local high school, preaching his own brand of Biblically-based pro-life agenda to the students on their way into the school.
His presence, his attempts at engagement with students, and his video recording of the encounters – which he posted online – incensed some parents and community members.
He was referred to as “creepy” and “disturbed.” His own words on the sidewalk were often intolerant, at best. Yet the same law protected all those words, spewed from both sides.
And that’s the point.
In this nation, public speech is protected – yours, mine, and his. Not a certain kind of speech, but nearly all speech. Not in certain places, at certain times, in front of certain audiences, but in nearly all public places, and at nearly all times, in front of nearly any audience. There are very few exceptions, and the public sidewalk in front of a high school is not one of them.
It doesn’t matter if the speech is positive and uplifting, or distracting and troubling. Neither does it matter if it’s about abortion, gender, poverty, women’s rights, taxes or teachers’ strikes. And just because I may find the message unseemly doesn’t mean it’s not protected.
But back to the issue at hand ... the videos.
So angered were parents that students were visible in the videos this man posted on social media, that a handful came out to the high school on Feb. 8 to hold their own demonstration of civil liberties as they attempted to block the zealot’s camera so he could not record the kids as they went into school. School administrators assisted, guiding teenagers off the bus and away from the demonstration into other school doors.
The spirit behind this effort is understandable. As parents, we all want to keep our kids happy and safe. At school, staff and teachers work hard to keep students focused and protected. That’s the responsibility while the students are in their care.
But in a couple of months, some of these teens will be adults. In a few years, they all will be. They will be voting, working, fighting wars, having sex, having babies and going to college. They may even engage their own freedoms supporting a cause in which they believe.
As they head into that adulthood, they ought to know their rights, and the rights of others. They ought to know that there is no assumption of privacy in a public place. They ought to know that someone else’s opinion is not something from which they need to be protected. And they ought to know that just because an opinion may be different than their own doesn’t make it a threat, and just because someone states that opinion loudly, or in their general direction, doesn’t make it harassment.
I took last week’s demonstrations for just what they were – expressions of our rights under the laws of this land. Teaching moments, both of what can be done, and what should be done, on a local, human stage for all our soon-to-be-adults to see.
I hope they were watching.