Free Speech Depends on Who Is Speaking

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the first guarantee in the Bill of Rights — states: “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.“ But the Louisiana Legislature isn’t Congress, and despite a similar guarantee in the state Constitution, one House committee chairman decided last week that free speech is only for those he deems worthy. The House Criminal Justice committee was considering HB 271, which would allow teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. Proponents had already spoken, and those who filed red cards in opposition were called to the table – among them, Sam Peter. He came forward, and before he could take a seat at the witness table, committee chairman, Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Albany) said, “Ummm, we’re probably not going to do that.” Sam Peter, you see, is a ten-year-old boy. He was accompanied by his mother, who protested, “He’s directly impacted by this.” “I understand, but he’s a child and we’re just…we’re not going to do that,” Mack said. “Ma’am, if you want to speak, you can.” “Please let me speak,” the boy asked. “We’re not going to do that, young man, okay?” Mack said sternly. “Alright?” “Thank you, Representative,” Sam said, hanging his head and backing away from the table. “He’s very well-spoken, and children are directly impacted by…” his mother said again, only to be interrupted by Mack saying, firmly, “Yes, he is. Well-mannered and a nice-looking young man, but no, he cannot speak.” Many were taken aback at the chairman’s decision, for Louisiana’s Constitution says, “Every person may speak, write, and publish his sentiments on any subject,” and further, ”No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws. No law shall arbitrarily, capriciously, or unreasonably discriminate against a person because of birth, age, sex, culture, physical condition, or political ideas or affiliations.” Once the bill had been voted down, Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), a member of the committee, sought out the boy and his mother. He had another committee room opened for them, and proceeded to get Sam Peter’s testimony on record, after all. You can view it here. Subsequently, the young man was invited to the 4th floor, to deliver his testimony directly to Gov. John Bel Edwards. The next day, Mack against showed he considers himself the arbiter of free speech, during his committee’s debate over HB 727 – which opponents argued was itself an attack on both free speech and the right to assemble. “This bill deals with pipelines, adding them to the list of ‘critical infrastructure’,” explained the measure’s author, Rep. Major Thibaut (D-New Roads. “This bill just adds pipelines to, like, nuclear plants or our refineries.” But it also establishes criminal penalties — imprisonment at hard labor for not less than 6 years, nor more than 20 years – for interfering with construction of a pipeline. Environmental activists who’ve been actively engaged in trying to halt construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline – through protests and court actions – lined up to speak against the bill. “The federal government defines critical infrastructure as follows: ‘systems and assets so vital to the United States that the incapacity of them would have debilitating impact on security, national public health, or safety’,” explained Kathleen Patton, the widow of Abita Brewery’s founding partner. “Pipelines like Bayou Bridge don’t fit that definition. All of the oil is for export. It’s to benefit private investors, not the public sector, while the public threat is people dying from environmental pollutants. “The real reason for this bill’s assault on constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly is to effectively change the reach of government to include private profitability,” she concluded. “Critical infrastructure? Critical for who?” questioned Margaret Logue, with “It’s being built for a Texas company. The oil is for export. And most of the 2500 construction jobs are going to out-of-state workers. “This bill was written by the oil and gas industry. This state is very beholden to that industry, but it’s not providing the jobs it once did, and we’re left with the damages, despite Louisiana’s constitution saying we are supposed to protect natural resources and the environment. This bill would make it criminal for us to do that. The conspiracy portion of this bill would make it criminal just for us to talk about engaging in civil disobedience.” However, it was Michael Broussard from Youngsville who pushed Chairman Mack’s buttons. “The history of this state and the petrochemical industry is one of corporate ‘do as we say’. This time they have overstepped. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline is passing directly behind my home, and this is clearly an attack on free speech by threat of imprisonment and fine. “You can smirk, sir, but that is the case,” he said, addressing Mack who had hidden his smile behind his hand. “I’m not smirking,” Mack replied. “And you’ve got 30 seconds.” “When we’ve tried to stand up at the public hearings about this pipeline, they got as long as they wanted to speak, and then the head of the Houston office for the pipeline company accused us of being non-patriotic!” Broussard said, his volume increasing. “I’m a Vietnam veteran!” And as Broussard paused for breath, Mack said, “We thank you for your visit to the Capitol.” “I’m not finished!” Broussard exclaimed. “Well, yes you are,” Mack said firmly, as he gestured to House security to escort the man out. “You’re done.” What’s a citizen to do when the right to speak to lawmakers in the people’s House is quashed by an autocratic committee chairman? You can’t take legal action for infringement of your civil rights, because the Louisiana Constitution grants legislators immunity “during attendance at sessions and committee meetings…for any speech in either house.” That’s why it’s okay for Senator John Milkovich to tell his fellow senators that his bill permitting public school staff to pray with public school students during school hours (SB 253) is “completely constitutional” – with no repercussions. And it’s why Rep. Dodie Horton could insist during a hearing on expanding the illnesses allowable for medical marijuana treatment that, “To make the statement that no one ever died from marijuana is not accurate. That is not accurate. The Daily Currant, in January 2014, thirty-seven people died of overdoses the first day Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. It is fact.” (In Rep. Horton’s case, there were repercussions – public ridicule, as the publication she cited is satire, and The Advocate’s Elizabeth Crisp tweeted that fact. Crisp also wrote an article about it, and that story has been widely repeated, in state and nationally.) One could complain to the Speaker, but as we’ve seen, Taylor Barras is unwilling to discipline members – for offensive speech to other members, and certainly not for overstepping their authority and treading on constituents’ rights. And in the case of HB 727, which criminalizes pipeline protests, fifty-one of the 105 House members have already signed onto the bill as co-authors. What could that mean for young Sam Peter’s future right to speak – much less speak freely? What might it mean for us all?
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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.