Opinion

VT lawyer groups reject First Amendment resolution – now citizens must lead

by Deborah Bucknam

There has been an increasingly disturbing trend across the nation. Our First Amendment rights  to speak freely, to peaceably assemble, and to a free press, have been under assault.

It started  years ago when colleges and universities disinvited commencement speakers some student  bullies did not like. When this practice was not condemned by the supposed adults running the  institutions, the bullies became bolder, shouting down and physically attacking speakers invited  by some campus organizations, then attacking and sometimes even physically assaulting anyone  who dared to speak up publicly on college campuses with a message the bullies did not agree  with. 

Vermont has followed this pattern. More than ten years ago, UVM disinvited a commencement  speaker. A few years ago, a speaker at Middlebury was shouted off the stage, and the professor  who was escorting her was attacked and sustained a concussion.  

There was silence by the political and intellectual leaders of the state about these incidents.  

“Public leadership and public intellectuals  condone by their silence assaults on those who do not conform. And if someone dares to speak  up about their silence, she is shamed and silenced as well.  In Vermont, however, there is hope, not among the so-called intellectual class, but among the extraordinary citizens who still cling to the quaint idea that we all have a right to speak freely,  without fear of intimidation or other adverse consequences.” – Attorney Deb Bucknam

This year, the assaults on those freedoms have escalated. A Vermont public school principal  was fired because she dared to speak her mind. A group peaceably assembling to support the  police in Montpelier was attacked and shouted down by “protestors” who did not like the  message.  

And, finally, recently, the book burners removed hundreds of copies of Seven Days newspapers from the newsstands, and burned them, because Seven Days had published a news story they  didn’t approve of.  

Again, except for the journalist organizations condemning the newspaper burning—thank  goodness—there was silence from Vermont political and intellectual leaders.  

Recently, I submitted a proposed resolution to the Vermont Bar Association Board, asking them  to present it to the Association. The resolution outlined the three incidents noted above, and  condemned these assaults on our basic freedoms. I naively assumed that lawyers, whose  professional duties include defending and protecting the civil rights of its citizens, would agree  to publicly condemn, like the journalist organizations did, assaults on our rights to free speech,  assembly, and of the press.  

I was wrong. The Board unanimously voted not to submit the resolution to the Vermont Bar Association.  

A few days ago, I asked my colleagues in Caledonia County Bar to urge the Vermont Bar  Association to take up the resolution.  

The response? I was verbally assaulted and publicly shamed. Lawyers said that the resolution  was “right wing lunacy”, called my defense of the First Amendment “crazy rantings”, and said my proposal was “raw politics”. Several lawyers told me to stop sending messages—they were  busy. One lawyer told me to go home and lie down.  

Not one person (except my lawyer daughter) publicly came to my defense or discussed the  substance of the resolution. Not one lawyer claimed that any of my factual assertions were false.  

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, who writes a weekly column on The Americas in the Wall Street  Journal, recently sounded the alarm on the deterioration of our First Amendment freedoms. She  wrote that in the totalitarian regimes in South and Central America, long before the jackboots took control, intellectuals began to blacklist dissidents in their midst, shaming their colleagues  and supporting censorship for those who questioned the beliefs of the majority. The ground was  cultivated well for subsequent government censorship and coercion. Of course, as night follows  day, those same intellectuals eventually became targets themselves, ending up in jail or worse.  

We see the same distressing pattern here in Vermont. Public leadership and public intellectuals  condone by their silence assaults on those who do not conform. And if someone dares to speak  up about their silence, she is shamed and silenced as well.  

In Vermont, however, there is hope, not among the so-called intellectual class, but among the extraordinary citizens who still cling to the quaint idea that we all have a right to speak freely,  without fear of intimidation or other adverse consequences. Recently, at Thaddeus Stevens  School in Lyndonville, a child came into school with a shirt that sported a political message.  That child was disparaged by his classmates. The Director of the school, Julie Hansen, a genuine liberal, immediately put a stop to it, and gave the kids a lesson in our basic civil rights. The  children listened, understood, and agreed with Ms. Hansen.  

Julie Hansen wrote to the parents about the incident in words the Vermont Bar Association  should take to heart:  

“We made it clear [to the students] that importantly, citizens have every right, even  responsibility, to express their political views…Please join us in encouraging our students to  understand that American democracy includes a variety of views and that if we wish our views to  be heard and respected, we must also respect and listen to opposing points of view. Our children  are listening and watching. I ask us all to recall Lincoln’s famous appeal to the people: ‘We must  not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of  affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be,  by the better angels of our nature.’” 

The response by Thaddeus Stevens’ parents was polar opposite to the response by Vermont lawyers, the putative defenders of our constitutional rights. The parents, in an overwhelming  response, strongly supported Director Hansen’s response and her letter. They thanked her for her  defense of the students’ rights, even when they did not agree with the student’s message.  

If our intellectual leaders refuse to support our citizens’ basic civil rights, then it is up to the rest  of us to defend every person’s rights. Thaddeus Stevens School students, teachers, and parents have demonstrated that Vermonters still believe in preserving and defending our freedoms. That  lesson needs to be heeded by Vermont’s leaders. 

6 replies »

  1. Excellent Essay Ms Buckman.
    Guess there is no Money in Constitional Rights for those “sue em hard” lawyers who jeered you down.

    Thank you so much. And we hope you will pursue a political career

    • Thankyou for writing that important essay, Ms. Buckman. The apocalyptic Cancel Culture is upon us, and I believe this is merely the beginning of organized attacks throughout America against our First Amendment rights.

  2. Thank you for leading the way, trying the legal route, only to be “cancelled and berated, but not deterred.
    There are many of us frustrated with the examples you have given from this and prior years,
    but have unfortunately kept quiet due to the ugly, prejudiced, and one-sided backlash. Your clear
    article is very much appreciated and inspiring, which will hopefully give others similar courage
    to speak up. I was at that “Rally” (not a “protest” as media reported) supporting the efforts of law
    enforcement in Montpelier, and it DID turn ugly, disrespectful, and hateful by the very well organized
    COPWATCH protesters . (COP WATCH did the same in other Vermont and nationwide towns/cities.)
    In Montpelier, no one was there to disburse them, and they managed to halt, over-shout, chant falsehoods,
    and shut down the rally, essentially denying and squelching the free speech of the law abiding rally speakers.

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