Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Protecting Messy Democracy

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Similarly, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee guarantees the right of Tennesseans "to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances, or other proper purposes, by address or remonstrance."

Those freedoms would have been endangered under little noticed legislation that would have permitted the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor to jointly order the state highway patrol to "take necessary measures upon all streets, roadways, intersections and sidewalks within or adjacent to the Capitol Hill complex" to clear out protesters.

This unconstitutional legislation came under public scrutiny after it was discussed by Steve Gill on his radio program and was written about by bloggers such as Blake Wylie, who is quoted in The Tennessean's story on the outcry this morning. The Senate, which had previously passed the measure, has recalled it from the House in order to attempt to amend it to make it more acceptable by limiting it to demonstrations impeding traffic.

Senator Mark Norris, according to The Tennessean, defended the bill, saying that he did not think the measure would be abused. While I generally find myself in agreement with Senator Norris, in this instance I do not. It would seem to be the point of having "a government of laws and not of men" that we not entrust that kind of power to government officials.

Peaceful demonstrations can be annoying, and I was one of those who argued that the recent wheel chair demonstration hurt the cause of those who organized it. That being said, the rights to free speech and to petition government are precious ones that cannot be discarded simply because they are inconvenient.

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