Monday, September 22, 2008 • 12:00 AM Post a Comment

Open Season on the First Amendment

posted by Diane Garey

In January of 1966, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to deny Julian Bond his fairly-won seat in that legislative body. The 26-year-old Bond was African-American, and no doubt his race played a part in the legislature's actions. But the legislature ruled that Bond be barred from office because he had spoken out against the Vietnam War. In essence, he had exercised his right to free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The legislature, in denying him his seat, claimed that he had no right to speak his mind, and a month later a three-judge federal court hearing in Atlanta agreed.

Disturbing, isn't it, to think that a citizen could be denied free speech rights once elected to office? Those of you who follow local politics know that Bond's case is not unique--here in Williamsburg, Massachusetts we had our own elected-official-free-speech battle, not nearly so famous as Bond's but just as important, and just as disturbing. Karen Karowski was a duly elected member of the Williamsburg Finance Committee and the elected Town Treasurer. In 2002, she was unhappy with the Select Board's cost-cutting plans for the town police force, and she openly criticized the board at public meetings.

Karowski was not the only board member to speak out on this issue in town, but she was the only one who was also employed by the town--at her day job she was the administrative assistant for the police department. This happens a lot in small towns like ours, and you probably guess the reason behind it. There are a tiny number of people willing to do the work of the town, be it paid or elected. And you can probably guess what happened to Karowski when she spoke out at Finance Committee. The Select Board fired her, citing her "consistent and open criticism at Finance Committee meetings."

This, to my mind, is punishment in the extreme. To lose a job is to lose livelihood and in many cases, dignity and self-respect. In Karowski's case it was more sobering to many in town since she is a single mother who clearly relied on that job. But that didn't matter to me in the least. If she had six rich husbands and a yacht anchored off Newport, she would still have the right to free speech.

Karowski herself admits that she was uncertain of her rights. "I didn't know if I had any," she told me, "so the next day I made called a lawyer." Good move. She could have simply looked for another job, but this would have served her own cause--and the cause of free speech--poorly.

Karowski's lawyer, Harry L. Miles, calls this a "classic case of rights violations." Karowski had the right to free speech he told me, "and as a town employee she was entitled due process under the town's policies, a hearing at the very least. But she got no hearing, and what's more was terminated solely for her speech."

Both Bond and Karowski took their cases to court. Bond had to go all the way to the top--the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case in December, 1966. Bond won a unanimous decision. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that legislators be "given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy... legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial issues so that their constituents can be fully informed of them and better able to assess their qualifications for office." Thus both Bond and Karowski were fulfilling their obligations as well as exercising their rights by speaking their minds.

Karowski didn't get a day in court--she didn't need one. The town settled and she was awarded back pay and legal fees. When it was all over Karowski and Miles told friends that it "wasn't about the money," then backed up those words with a whopper of a donation to the Williamsburg Friends of the Library, "to advance the cause of free speech." (Full disclosure--I am a fanatical supporter of public libraries. I would live in one if I could.)

Both cases have lasting legacies. In Bond's case the civil right movement gained an effective leader who is still active today. In Karowski's case the Meekins Library, which operates on a shoestring, was able to buy those beautiful Library of America volumes that are keeping this nation's literary legacy intact by reissuing important American authors, many of whom are out of print. These books could well be in the town's library a century from now.

This is election season, certainly a good time for all good candidates to ponder on the rights and the responsibilities they will assume if they win office. And any season is a good one to ponder the First Amendment. Brief in form, breathtaking in scope, it should be on the front of the Wheaties box. It's not, so I append it here:

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.
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