Editor’s note: This commentary is by Deborah Bucknam, a St. Johnsbury-based attorney and the vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party.
There has been an increasingly disturbing trend across the nation — our First Amendment rights to speak freely, to peaceably assemble, and to a free press have been under assault. It started years ago when colleges and universities disinvited commencement speakers some student bullies did not like. When this practice was not condemned by the supposed adults running the institutions, the bullies became bolder, shouting down and physically attacking speakers invited by some campus organizations, then attacking — and sometimes even physically assaulting — anyone who dared to speak up publicly on college campuses with a message the bullies did not agree with.
Vermont has followed this pattern. More than 10 years ago, UVM disinvited a commencement speaker. A few years ago, a speaker at Middlebury was shouted off the stage, and the professor who was escorting her was attacked and sustained a concussion.
There was silence by the political and intellectual leaders of the state about these incidents.
This year, the assaults on those freedoms have escalated. A Vermont public school principal was fired because she dared to speak her mind. A group peaceably assembling to support the police in Montpelier was attacked and shouted down by “protestors” who did not like the message.
And, finally, recently, the book burners removed hundreds of copies of Seven Days newspapers from the newsstands and burned them because Seven Days had published a news story they didn’t approve of.
Again, except for the journalist organizations condemning the newspaper burning — thank goodness — there was silence from Vermont political and intellectual leaders.
Recently, I submitted a proposed resolution to the Vermont Bar Association Board asking them to present it to the association. The resolution outlined the three incidents noted above and condemned these assaults on our basic freedoms. I naively assumed that lawyers, whose professional duties include defending and protecting the civil rights of its citizens, would agree to publicly condemn, like the journalist organizations did, assaults on our rights to free speech, assembly and of the press.
I was wrong. The board unanimously voted not to submit the resolution to the Vermont Bar Association.
A few days ago I asked my colleagues in Caledonia County Bar to urge the Vermont Bar Association to take up the resolution.
The response? I was verbally assaulted and publicly shamed. Lawyers said that the resolution was “right wing lunacy,” called my defense of the First Amendment “crazy rantings,” and said my proposal was “raw politics.” Several lawyers told me to stop sending messages — they were busy. One lawyer told me to go home and lie down.
Not one person (except my lawyer daughter) publicly came to my defense or discussed the substance of the resolution. Not one lawyer claimed that any of my factual assertions were false.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who writes a weekly column on the Americas in the Wall Street Journal, recently sounded the alarm on the deterioration of our First Amendment freedoms. She wrote that in the totalitarian regimes in South and Central America, long before the jackboots took control, intellectuals began to blacklist dissidents in their midst, shaming their colleagues and supporting censorship for those who questioned the beliefs of the majority. The ground was cultivated well for subsequent government censorship and coercion. Of course, as night follows day, those same intellectuals eventually became targets themselves, ending up in jail or worse.
We see the same distressing pattern here in Vermont. Public leadership and public intellectuals condone by their silence assaults on those who do not conform. And if someone dares to speak up about their silence, she is shamed and silenced as well.
In Vermont, however, there is hope, not among the so-called intellectual class, but among the extraordinary citizens who still cling to the quaint idea that we all have a right to speak freely without fear of intimidation or other adverse consequences. Recently, at Thaddeus Stevens School in Lyndonville, a child came into school with a shirt that sported a political message. That child was disparaged by his classmates. The director of the school, Julie Hansen, a genuine liberal, immediately put a stop to it, and gave the kids a lesson in our basic civil rights. The children listened, understood and agreed with Ms. Hansen.
Julie Hansen wrote to the parents about the incident in words the Vermont Bar Association should take to heart:
We made it clear [to the students] that importantly, citizens have every right, even responsibility, to express their political views. … Please join us in encouraging our students to understand that American democracy includes a variety of views and that if we wish our views to be heard and respected, we must also respect and listen to opposing points of view. Our children are listening and watching. I ask us all to recall Lincoln’s famous appeal to the people: ‘We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
The response by Thaddeus Stevens’ parents was polar opposite to the response by Vermont lawyers, the putative defenders of our constitutional rights. The parents, in an overwhelming response, strongly supported Director Hansen’s response and her letter. They thanked her for her defense of the students’ rights, even when they did not agree with the student’s message.
If our intellectual leaders refuse to support our citizens’ basic civil rights, then it is up to the rest of us to defend every person’s rights. Thaddeus Stevens School students, teachers, and parents have demonstrated that Vermonters still believe in preserving and defending our freedoms. That lesson needs to be heeded by Vermont’s leaders.