2017-06-07 / Letters

Brat stifles First Amendment rights

Jim McConnell’s article on U.S. Rep. Dave Brat’s town hall on May 9, [“Teeming with anger,” May 17] was disappointing. In our country, we have the luxury of a free press. Because of that freedom, the press has the duty to investigate and inform. The Observer 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 the Observer miss the fact that Brat consistently holds town halls on private property, this time a Christian church, when there were two Chesterfield schools across the road and dozens more public schools in Brat’s district? Because the event was on private property, the property owners could and did prohibit signs, posters, banners or flyers, even though the American Civil Liberties Union had reminded Brat on two occasions that prohibiting them was a violation of the attendees’ free speech.

The event was open only to ticket holders. Did the Observer miss the fact 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 notecards? 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 the Observer 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 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price questions. The Observer missed the big picture.

In a May 14 Richmond Times-Dispatch story, “Trumpcare could lead to cuts in services for elderly, people with disabilities in Virginia,” the paper reported: “When asked to comment for this story, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, refused to do so unless he was guaranteed three unedited paragraphs in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Brat voted in favor of the bill.” Brat has now taken his First Amendment assault to a new level with his attempt to stifle the free press.

What will it take for McConnell 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 as Brat’s demands. 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.

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

Maggie Dolan

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