By Bill Moore
The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous document. It is the framework for the operation of our government and clearly delineates the distinct duties of the three branches of that government. The Constitution grants rights, responsibilities and duties to the various states as well describing the responsibilities the federal government has to the states. The Constitution provides for a methodology to add amendments. The Constitution, noting that it is the supreme law of the land, pledges repayment of all debts incurred under the Articles of Confederation. All legislative, executive and judicial officers of the federal and state governments are bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution. Finally, the Constitution provides for its ratification and establishment.
Following adoption of the Constitution by the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 19, 1787, the ratification process began. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788, and the Confederation Congress, under which our federal government operated, determined that the new Constitution would go into effect on March 4, 1789.
Shortly after government under the new Constitution began, several states petitioned the Congress for more protections for individual rights. This led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The House sent 17 proposed amendments to the Senate for adoption. The Senate passed 12 of the amendments, the House concurred, and they were referred to the several states for adoption. Ten amendments were adopted.
The First Amendment is quite clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” It provides for, among other rights, freedom of speech, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to petition government.
Chapter I, Articles 13 and 20, of the Vermont Constitution provide similar individual rights.
Why is this important?
Last week, a group of about a dozen demonstrators took to the Vermont House of Representatives to protest. The issue doesn’t matter, but the manner of their public demonstration does.
The protesters, chanting and unfurling a banner, were quickly gaveled down by Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, who called for order to be returned to the House. More shouts and disruption ensued and the speaker, showing incredible restraint, again gaveled the House to order. Finally, one of the protesters showered the House chamber with hundreds of propaganda cards. Speaker Johnson rightly announced a House recess and ordered the chamber cleared of all legislators and guests.
This is not peaceful assembly, protected speech or the proper way, as allowed in Article 20, to “instruct their Representatives — and to apply to the Legislature for redress of grievances, by address, petition or remonstrance.” This was the act of an unruly bunch, attempting to draw attention to themselves and their cause.
Every day, Vermonters address members of the Vermont General Assembly on issues of importance to them. They are buttonholing members in the halls of the Statehouse, testifying before any of the various legislative committees, protesting on the great lawn or meeting their elected officials in the grocery store. Vermonters get their message across in polite discourse. The Central Vermont Chamber is a regular at the Statehouse, joining other lobbying organizations who represent important issues identified by our constituents.
The demonstration in the House chamber ultimately resulted in Sergeant-at-Arms Janet Miller and her staff of doorkeepers and Capitol Police going into action to secure the building and protect the public. The debate and vote on an important bill were delayed by nearly 90 minutes. Most of the demonstrators were escorted out of the building and three were arrested.
We should all feel free to address our elected officials and not be afraid to advise them of our concerns. We should do so in a respectful, orderly manner. Trying to influence the outcome of the legislative process by loud, irreverent, obnoxious and disrespectful outbursts is counterproductive. It likely results in garnering more opposition to the cause being advocated for and has no place in the halls of the people’s House.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.