David Adler: Historic persistence boosts Add the Words

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMarch 6, 2014 

The Add the Words protesters — citizens in action, trying to remedy an injustice — have provided the Gem State with a teaching moment in the curriculum of civic education and First Amendment freedoms. The ongoing engagement in nonviolent civil disobedience in the Capitol — peacefully blocking hallways, Senate chambers, committee rooms and, more recently, the governor’s office — has resulted in some 150 arrests and reminded Idahoans of the rights and freedoms that make up our First Amendment biography.

In addition to exercising their rights of freedom of speech and assembly, this group of citizens has brought renewed attention to the right to persistently “petition Government for redress of grievances.” A survey conducted in 2010 by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt revealed that only 6 percent of Americans knew that the First Amendment, which Justice William O. Douglas referred to as “the bedrock upon which all our other rights depend,” protects the right to petition government.

The right of petition, traced to the majestic Magna Carta of 1215, enshrined in the English Right of Petition in 1628, the English Bill of Rights in 1689 and America’s Declaration of Rights, is not limited to a one-time-only statement or action. On the contrary — it is an invitation to, and protection for, continued, energetic efforts to persuade the government of its failings, injustices and oversights.

That’s why Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation to protesters to “create their own forum” that “some legislators” might attend is insufficient. In fact, the Add the Words campaign has held numerous meetings and rallies across the Gem State. Very few lawmakers have attended those sessions. When elected officials ignore, for eight years, requests to print a bill and hold a hearing to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to include protection for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” American citizens have little choice but to fully exercise their First Amendment rights.

Persistence is a widely admired American value, particularly when employed in pursuit of freedom, justice and equality. It was critical to the enshrinement in American law and the history of Martin Luther King’s conclusion that “the arc of the moral universe ... bends toward justice.” That theme resonates in American politics, across decades and regions.

In 1985, a small group of determined students at the University of Utah joined that era’s “Divestiture Movement,” organized to persuade universities to sell stock in companies doing business in South Africa, as a means of protesting the practice of apartheid. The students erected “shanties” on the campus as a means of illustrating the poverty and plight of those in South Africa who were denied equal rights by government officials.

University officials sought in federal court an injunction against the erection of the shanties, but the students’ First Amendment rights of speech and petition were vindicated. So, too, was their message. Within a few months, the Board of Regents decided to sell the university’s holdings in companies associated with South Africa.

Americans enjoy hard-earned rights and freedoms. Since the Declaration of Independence, campaigns to win and protect the rights of women, blacks and other minorities reflect a shared commitment to persistently petitioning government for redress of their grievances.

Comparatively speaking, the Add the Words campaign is in its youth. But this movement, a historic march to win equal protection for gays, bears the hallmarks of persistence that defined its predecessors.

Across Idaho, this issue is not seen as part of the weather of the day, but rather the climate of the era. Climate change is irresistible.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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