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.
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.