Pulling the Plug on the First Amendment

During the September 23, 2013 meeting of the Bennington Select Board an order was given to pull the plug. Given the order, the CatamountAccess-TV cameraman immediately obeyed. Video and audio of the live broadcast suddenly disappeared from thousands of television screens. This occurred during an enthusiastic discussion between a citizen and a member of the Select Board.

That there was a blackout in one small Vermont town is not really important. If the blackout had been caused by a power outage, no one would care.

The important point is that government — at all levels, local, state, and federal — is out of control. Another important point is that elected officials often believe that they have the authority to ‘determine’ how much citizens know about their government.

Citizens have the right to information… and also the right to participate in government. The plug was pulled in Bennington for the sole purpose of silencing a citizen. This is a on-going problem in a town where the public tax supported library bans certain political books. Local politics and cronyism rule many Vermont towns… but the problem is not limited to Vermont. It is much the same in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas.

The extreme arrogance of government started a long time ago. During the Truman Administration the Black Budget was authorized. Not one informed vote has been cast in the United States since then. Think about that.  If there ever was democracy in the USA, it died with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947.  Place a call to your Congressman. Ask about the Black budget; or better yet, ask about the CIA system of Black Prisons around the world. Citizens are routinely denied any information. That is bad. Congressmen are also routinely denied access to information. That is even worse.

In complete disclosure, I am a fan of CAT-TV.   Community television is one of any small town’s most important assets. Community access media is the stronghold of the First Amendment.  This is especially important in a State where the First Amendment has been quietly under attack for years. CAT-TV should never be silenced — not even for a few minutes.

Evidence of the erosion of free speech is often seen during election time. Photos of Dennis Steele being arrested are available on the Internet. Steele was a candidate for governor. He was arrested because he wanted to participate in a political debate. Another candidate, Peter Diamondstone, was arrested at the Vermont Law School. He also wanted to participate in a debate.

When a book is banned by a library, or when a candidate is not allowed to participate in a debate it is often ‘under the radar’. Citizens are never told. Libraries do not post lists of books they ban.  People do not know what they don’t know. These are the unknown unknowns.  If more citizens knew that their Constitutional rights have been compromised, they would react.

Newspapers and other privately owned companies have the legal right to publish or not publish anything they want. Public tax supported schools and libraries have a higher obligation to honor free speech — especially political speech.

The banning of political books by a public tax supported library is a violation of the First Amendment.  Legal experts and Constitutional lawyers can game the system by arguing that the Amendment applies only to the federal government.  That can be debated, but the spirit of the First Amendment is very clear. It should be honored.

Instead of pulling the plug on any community TV outlet, the plug should be pulled on the funding of all organizations and libraries that suppress free speech or prohibit the right to read.  The chipping away at the First Amendment has a chilling effect on the democratic process and discourages citizen participation.

How ironic, this most recent attack on the First Amendment occurred during Banned Book Week.

Rosemarie Jackowski is an advocacy journalist living in Vermont. Read other articles by Rosemarie.