Free speech and journalistic responsibility

Jim McConnell’s article on the 5/9/17 Brat Town Hall, “Teeming with anger: Town hall signals leftward shift” was disappointing. In our country, we have the luxury of Freedom of the Press. Because of that freedom, the press has the duty to investigate and inform. McConnell took the easy way out that day and chose to entertain, by writing about the crowd reaction instead of digging deeper to understand why they were reacting in that manner. Did he miss the fact that Brat consistently holds Town Halls on private property, this time a Christian church, when there were two Chesterfield County public schools across the road and dozens more public schools in Brat’s district?

Why didn’t McConnell grasp that because the event was on private property, the property owners could and did prohibit signs, posters, banners or flyers even though the VA ACLU had reminded Brat on two occasions that prohibiting them was a violation of the attendees’ Free Speech? Did McConnell miss the fact that the event was only open to ticket holders?

That those on the wait list were denied entry even though there were dozens of empty seats inside? That the attendees were not permitted to speak to Brat directly but had to submit their questions on note cards which were then pre-selected and read to Brat? That Brat’s co-host stood up and angrily scolded the audience, “You all be quiet now. This is MY Town Hall.”

The audience was not booing at God when Brat said, “Our rights are God-given.” They booed because they knew that our right to Free Speech does not come from God, It comes from our Constitution. The audience’s anger should be unsurprising because they fully realized their First Amendment rights were being violated, even if McConnell didn’t. The First Amendment, specifically Freedom of the Press was already in the headlines that day.

A West Virginia reporter was arrested simply for asking HHS Secretary Tom Price a question, so apparently McConnell is missing the big picture. In a May 16, 2017, RTD article, “Trumpcare could lead to cuts in services for elderly, people with disabilities in Virginia” detailed the disastrous impact it will have on Virginians. The RTD reported, “When asked to comment for the story, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, refused to do so unless he was guaranteed three unedited paragraph in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.”  Brat voted in favor of the “bill,” and has now taken his First Amendment assault to a new level with his attempt to stifle the Free Press.

What will it take for McDonnell and the Chesterfield Observer to see that politicians like Brat are engaged in guerrilla warfare on the First Amendment? Their threats are rarely as overt as Price’s, or Brat’s demands on the RTD. More often they are insidious like Brat’s violations of his constituents’ rights to Freedom of Assembly, Freedom of Religion and Free Speech in his Town Halls on the pretext of crowd control.

James Madison enshrined Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom of Religion as the very first Amendment to the Constitution because he believed these to be the most important freedoms we have, the freedoms on which all others are based.

Whether you agree with an individual’s political beliefs or not, the individual’s right to have them and express them must be protected. Our First Amendment rights are guaranteed but can’t be taken for granted. They must be re-won by every generation. This is what democracy looks like.

When will McConnell and the Chesterfield Observer uphold their duty to investigate, inform and hold the politicians accountable?

Maggie Dolan

Editor’s Note: This post was submitted to the Chesterfield Observer three weeks ago, and was finally published here. The author has granted permission to re-post her letter on Blue Louisa. It is also worth noting that they also printed this just below her letter.