John Klar: Religious protesters have a right to free speech, too

Condemnation has been profuse from Vermont’s congressional delegation (Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Peter Welch, and Rep. Becca Balint) which claims that a gay speaker was “targeted” at a recent speaking event in Lyndonville. Rather, free speech is being targeted by Sanders and the others based on a false account of what transpired.

John Klar

The reported kerfuffle stems from a poetry reading by a gay, black Newark writer named Toussaint St. Negritude at Cobleigh Library.

Local residents and members of a church peacefully displayed biblical slogans outside the library, but library staff and St. Negritude apparently found it objectionable that anyone would openly disagree with them or express their Christian faith. The library canceled the event.

Would the public library and its staff seek to prohibit Christians from displaying signs? The library says it is open to all. Library staffer Bryn Hoffman, writing in an op-ed published in the Caledonian Record, issued a public statement that “everyone is welcome.” She wrote:

Protesters showed up outside the library while the poetry reading was taking place. They held signs in front of the library and accosted staff and patrons who passed on the street. One protester confronted and menaced the host and a staff member outside the library as they were attempting to leave. The protester then followed the host to a second location in Lyndonville and approached him in the same menacing manner as he was leaving a local business, causing him to flee for his safety.

Yet, was anyone actually “accosted”? Was there any real safety risk? The alleged transgression was that a woman approached St. Negritude while he was leaving, and that she then approached him again at the thrift shop. The version of events as reported in VTDigger states a group of people “chanted the poet’s name” while holding signs that said “Prepare to Meet Thy God.”  St. Negritude told the news outlet, “I don’t know these people, but they were literally publicly condemning me. It was horrifying.”

One woman who attended the protest is Kathleen Iselin, a devout Christian who gives away bibles to people. She reportedly went up to St. Negritude and asked if she could give him a bible. In a report by the Caledonian Record, Iselin’s actions are described — she asks him, “Can I give you something?” and carried a bag with her. According to the report, St. Negritude “feared it might be a gun.” The same woman approached him again at a thrift store in Lyndon, and St. Negritude told her to back off before getting in his car and driving away, according to the report.

Now Vermonters are being told that this was a hateful attack against gay and black people, and  Balint, Sanders and Welch have reiterated that claim.  “Hate should have no place in Vermont,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt. said in the statement. “It’s disturbing to see homophobia and racism loud and present here in Vermont.”

While Vermont’s congressional delegation spoke of a “welcoming, inclusive Vermont,” it appears that doesn’t include Christian residents expressing their views well within their constitutional rights to free speech. Can’t people try to give away free bibles in public places? Do facts matter at all?

Kathleen Iselin insists the protesters never chanted Toussaint St. Negritude’s name, though she may have called out to him by name, assuming he would recognize her. She claims she did not “follow” him to the thrift shop, but that the meeting was coincidence. She said she believes the poet is an immensely talented artist, and explained that she was simply attempting to spread her Christian faith by giving away a bible.

St. Negritude told Caledonian Record that “there needs to be very direct aggressive action” in response to the protesters, and that “part of that will be holding these people accountable and being very public about it.”

Instead, we must hold these people accountable, and explain that this kind of dishonest hate-mongering will not be tolerated anymore. Not in Vermont. Not anywhere where truth actually matters. Americans have the right to protest and speak freely, especially about their faith — no matter how much Balint, Welch and Sanders want to target them for it, in blatant derogation of their oaths of office.

Image courtesy of Public domain

5 thoughts on “John Klar: Religious protesters have a right to free speech, too

  1. I met Kathleen Iselin last summer while engaging in my own first amendment rights to publicly demonstrate at the Vermont state house in Montpelier.

    She was one of the few Vermonters to actually engage with me that day. Most Vermonters, once faced with the truth of what they are ultimately responsible for, will only avert their eyes to the sidewalk pavement. At other times, Vermonters will shout from the self-righteous anonymity of their automobile windows, hurling curses and insults and threatening admonitions to leave Vermont.

    Kathleen was not only genuinely and authentically interested, but also polite, respectful and engaging.

    As she herself explained during our statehouse conversation, you as an attorney, Mr. Klar may find it curious that she was once a law student herself. During her law school education, she became aware that she could no longer continue on a career of law as it was inherently unethical and dehumanizing.

    If there were more genuinely caring and responsibly functioning human beings in Vermont like Kathleen Iselin, this world would be a better place.

  2. Hey Joy,
    The church has been commanded by God to spread the good news because it offers a relationship with God who made that happen by coming to the earth as Jesus and dying on a cross. This is news Christians are excited about and want to share. But, on the other hand, if you could care less about knowing God then Christians are view as an annoyance. In fact, some much of an annoyance they have been killed for their faith.
    So, joy…..were not into growing churches as in a business but growing the family of God.

  3. I guess I have been the victim of left wing hate. I was accosted in Montpelier by all kinds of leftists…protesting, marching, handing out leaflets, halting traffic, shouting thru bull horns…and deface the streets with massive “BLM” letters….but that is free speech? I also (for decades) was “accosted” by total strangers knocking at my door, in a semi rural area…carrying large bags (not Bibles). They immediately started to thrust papers in my face..proclaiming (just as a doomsday Bible thumper would) that we are facing some sort of “devastation”…. in the righteous name of VPIRG…It is all close at hand and they need my money donation to save VT. I politely declined and sent them on their way….just like this Black fellow should have done. How many here have faced harassment by the door knocking “Zealots of VPIRG” as well? VPIRG door knocking is the exact same as a lady passing out Bibles…Both are “in your face”…and not wished.

  4. I know from personal experience that media misinformation has taken over the trans issue.
    On the other hand, Evangelical Christians can be soo obnoxious. I have no sympathy for bible thumpers. They should have no right to invade anyone’s space. Frankly, the churches use them to grow their churches. It’s disgusting.

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