COLUMBIA — As Americans celebrate the birth of the nation, it's important to remember the 45-word sentence that begins the Bill of Rights and outlines the five basic civil liberties that are the keystones of American democracy.
The freedoms of speech, petition, press, religious expression and assembly are the blueprints for our society.
“The First Amendment was written because at America's inception, citizens demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms,” according to the First Amendment Center’s Web site.
Exercising First Amendment rights is a personal prerogative, as symbolized by these Columbia residents who are exercising the five freedoms embodied in the Bill of Rights. That's something to celebrate, too.
From noon to 3 p.m. every Thursday, Joanne Schrader uses her right to freely assemble by standing on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood on Providence Road to protest abortion and hand out information about alternatives.
Schrader, a *social services worker, has held her weekly vigil since February, along with a group of several friends who assemble from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays when women go into the clinic.
“We began standing out here because we all feel that human life deserves respect and protection starting from an early stage," Schrader said. "We feel it goes from conception all the way to old age. We want to reach people who are unsure of the issues surrounding abortion.”
Schrader and her friends are able to assemble because of Supreme Court cases such as the one in 1939 — Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization — that ruled it was unconstitutional to bar citizens from peaceably assembling on public property.
Christina Wells, an MU law professor, said courts may impose distance restrictions on groups with a history of disruptive behavior but that a court will never bar a group from being able to speak or freely express itself.
"The First Amendment protects peaceful, not violent, assembly," according to the First Amendment Center. "However, there must be a 'clear and present danger' or an 'imminent incitement of lawlessness' before government officials may restrict free-assembly rights."— John Springli
Almost five years ago, National Press Club member and Columbia resident Mike Martin created an electronic newsletter called The Columbia Heart Beat for the north-central part of the city, where he owns rental property. He drew on his background as a science journalist — he collects the articles he publishes on WeeklyScientist.blogspot.com from a variety of national and international publications — and writing experience as a member of the National Association of Science Writers.
As the popularity of The Columbia Heart Beat grew, Martin expanded the newsletter's content to reflect a citywide audience. His offerings include serious topics —an independent investigation into criminal activity at a rental property and questions about possible excessive spending — and items such as poems about Earth Day and Mother's Day memories.
Martin's newsletter hasn't been free of controversy. Mayor Darwin Hindman, for example, denied one report in the Heart Beat that he had participated in a discussion of strategies for removing "activist" members of the City Council.
As Charles Davis, an MU journalism professor, told him: When a powerful public official complains, you are doing your job, Martin said.
The press itself has historically been a target of criticism. The second U.S. president, John Adams, created the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were meant to quell criticism from the press and opponents. These four bills were an attempt by Adams to keep the U.S. from entering the French Revolution as well as to impede any attempt by Thomas Jefferson for the presidency. Jefferson repealed the acts as soon as he was elected president.
The Espionage Act of 1917 was created to keep the press from publishing articles that hurt national security in times of declared war. After the New York Times and Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers in 1971 with details about the war in Vietnam, the federal government sued the newspapers. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that government efforts to block publication infringed on a free press.— John Springli
After five years of work, the residents of Alexander Avenue have a solution for the speeding problem on their residential street. Cherith Moore took the initiative to present a petition that prompted the city government to provide a remedy to help keep children safe around passing cars.
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz, who was aware of the issue before he was elected to the council, helped get the petition drive going. Moore's background helped as well. She has master's degrees in social work and public administration and is working on her doctorate in sustainable community design.
With Sturtz's guidance, Moore and about 10 other residents were able to write their formal request to the council for traffic control measures such as speed humps and a 20 mph limit. Moore was able to have it signed by more than 90 percent of the 43 households on the street.
Although the petition drive was successful, Moore wishes there were better guidelines for citizens to follow when petitioning the city government.
“The process of citizen input should be made more well-known," she said. "No matter what education level, socioeconomic level or sense of entitlement," she said, the public "needs to know how they can be heard.”
Sheela Amin, the city clerk, said there are several different types of petitions for departments within the city. Someone wanting to petition needs to check with specific city departments and see if there is a petition form in place. Otherwise, she said, residents are free to write their own.
Moore and the other residents drafted the first petition five years ago asking the city to install two speed humps. It was signed by 100 percent of the households, she said, and endorsed by the council. Moore said it took 2 ½ years for the humps to be installed before they were scraped down in 2008 to the height of the rest of the street.
After the initial installation of the speed humps, Moore said, residents made call after call to Public Works to have the speed humps fixed because they were too close together. She said they were told the project was “not a priority.”
The issue eventually caught the attention of Sturtz, who suggested another petition that was presented to the council in May.
The council decided to restore the original speed humps, lower the speed limit and install additional speed humps near Alexander Avenue and Worley Street.— John Springli
The summer of 1979 in Iran was one of uncertainty and apprehension for Negar Resvani Jackson, who found herself in the midst of youth and the middle of a revolution. Her mother was a professor of radiology; her father was an architect. She was an only child and spent much of her time with her grandparents while her parents worked.
In the summer of 1979, however, Negar began learning how being a follower of the Baha’i faith placed her at odds with the extremist agendas in the political climate of the revolution.
Baha’i has had a tumultuous history since the faith was founded in Iran by the prophet Baha’u’llah in 1863. According to the Baha’i International Community’s Web site, the faith is rooted in the religious matrix of Islam, much like how Christianity came forth from the context of Judaism and, similarly, how Buddhism came from the context of Hinduism.
When Baha’u’llah began preaching his faith in Iran, he was deemed a heretic by Muslim religious leaders who opposed the idea of a monotheistic faith beyond Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Baha’is believe their faith to be a continuation of all world religions and preach the virtues in forming a new world order devoted to peace and reconciliation among all.
During the Iranian revolution in 1979, the situation for Baha’is in Iran was going from bad to worse. Negar’s parents recognized the deteriorating situation and made the decision to leave.
“My mom said goodbye to her parents, knowing that she’s never going to see them again,” Negar said, recounting how her parents first moved to Austria, where her father worked, before moving to Columbia to be near relatives.
Her parents were the last of the family to obtain exit visas from the Iranian government. After the summer of 1979, Negar said, many of her relatives had to pay people to smuggle them out of the country.
“I think a lot of times when people think of immigrants, they think they wanted to come to America for a better life,” Negar said. “It’s kind of inaccurate because we had a great life in Iran. We came here because of the revolution, and we came here because of religious persecution.”
family's most enduring bond, Negar said, is their faith, and they are
thankful for the freedom to practice it. As a fifth-generation Baha’i,
Negar said she now sees herself more as a follower of her religion than a
subject of her Iranian heritage.
“Sometimes I remember that part of my life, and it seems like another life," Negar said. "It doesn’t seem like my life."
Search for the name "Charles Dudley Jr." in the Missourian's online archive, and you'll get 63 pages' worth of hits. Tomorrow, it could be 64. Dudley is relentless about getting his opinions in the public domain.
He prefers the term "really persistent."
"Some people think I spend all day talking on the computer, but it's really only two, three hours total," Dudley said.
From his small apartment in Paquin Tower, Dudley exercises his First Amendment right to free speech, making his voice heard on the Internet on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. He’s particularly fond of commenting on newspaper stories.
Dudley said it's all about being a citizen advocate, but his comments often advertise the fact that he’s exercising his freedom of speech.
In America, free speech ensures the government can’t censor the public, and it allows citizens to become participants in the democracy. In a famous ruling in 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to the First Amendment’s promotion of the marketplace of ideas, through which the truth emerges from public dialogue that presents a mix of ideas, both good and bad.
Whether one agrees with Dudley's comments is one thing, but he certainly promotes public dialogue. Rarely do his posts on blogs or newspaper Web sites go unanswered. He’s grateful for the opportunity to share his views.
"The freedom of speech is the last thing we haven't lost yet,” he said. “They can't really stop it."
In Dudley’s opinion, you have to stand for something or you'll fall for anything. He said that exercising his freedom of speech is essential but that many people refrain from posting comments for fear of suffering public backlash. Dudley, however, said it’s the perfect platform.
Twenty years ago, a truck would drive by at night and toss a rolled-up newspaper on the driveway. The only way a reader could respond to the news was by writing a letter to the editor. It might have taken days or weeks before it was printed. Now, all a person has to do is log in and start typing.
Dudley is also a prolific blogger. He started the Paquin Tower Times, which was originally intended to focus on events within the apartment building but has grown to encompass discussion about the area around the building. Then he created Columbia Citizens for Disability Advocacy, which receives posts from people all over the globe.
Dudley wasn't discouraged when he was banned from commenting on the Columbia Daily Tribune's Web site. Rather, he immediately changed his moniker so he could log in again. And he created his own community forum, Citizens for Change in Columbia.
“When you overmoderate the public discussion, you destroy the flow of the thread, the flow of conversation. … The Internet offers unlimited readership and unlimited potential, and everyone should have their right to speak and be heard.”
He said his commentary gets people out of their shell, that it gets people thinking.
"Opinions and thoughts are what shaped this country into what it is today, and (they) always will."
When Dudley logs onto his computer to tap into the community conversation, the first thing he usually does is cringe at all the messages in his e-mail inbox. But, he said, "this way people are informed, and it gets them talking to their friends about current issues …
“… and it keeps them from becoming 'sheeple.'"
Dudley thinks others should do post in online forums. He said it’s a good way to influence government.
"You know that City Council looks at these posts, too, because we are the very citizens that live here, that voted them into office, that pay taxes and drive on the streets," he said.
Dudley said he’s proud to live in a country where citizens have inalienable rights and need not fear government retribution for voicing their opinions.
"I don't have an agenda,” he said. “It's about speaking up and being heard, and that motivates other citizens with similar or differing opinions to do the same."— Jim Holt