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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

The Case for the First Amendment

April 27, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News (Op-Ed)

In 1787 Philadelphia, which was then the nation’s capital, at the Constitutional Convention on September 17th, James Madison crafted the document that now defines American government, the U.S. Constitution. Four years later, on December 15, 1791 after much wrangling, the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, confirming the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens — was ratified.

And within that Bill of Rights and the Constitution, the First Amendment is the bedrock and keystone. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, speech and the press. It protects the rights of peaceful assembly and petition. Free speech and the right to speak truth to power remain the most cherished of American protections. The separation of Church and State defined by the First Amendment — the freedom of religion and from religion — has kept the U.S. from ever becoming a theocracy.

But the First Amendment is under threat. The Republican party is attacking this fundamental right from all angles and for a multiplicity of reasons, while also gaslighting Americans that it is really conservatives who are under attack by mobs of left-leaning K-6 teachers, queer theorists, Black historians armed with the 1619 Project, and “Hollywood elitists.”

It reads like parody, but couldn’t be more dangerously real for those the right is targeting.

Historically, attacks on free speech are meant to silence the speakers. And as those of us who came of radicalized activist age during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s recall all too well, silence equals death.

The GOP wants to silence its critics and silence alternative voices to its own. If some of us die in the process, these GOP politicians intimate, so be it — even if those deaths are kids destroyed by increasingly extremist GOP politics and policies. These actions and policies, argue GOP politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, are essential to preserving their narrow version of American and family values.

We’ve seen this before. In the post-WWII era, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated allegations of communist activity in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War. GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy demonized writers, Jews, “homosexuals” and actors, among others. Many were blacklisted. Then in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which redefined “homosexuals” as subversives who posed a threat to the U.S. government. The order forced thousands of gay men and lesbians in all areas of the federal government out of the closet and out of a job. Some were driven to suicide; many were made homeless.

This dark history is not that long ago and there are disturbing parallels in 2022. The common complaint from the GOP and conservative MAGAs is that “wokeness” and “political correctness” — also known as treating historically marginalized racial, ethnic and other groups with respect — are destroying the country and threatening American values.

That wokeness talk was rampant throughout the confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, led by 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), with support from Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Josh Hawley (R-MO). Cruz even held up a children’s picture book, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Baby” and declared it teaching wokeness to preschoolers (and inadvertently made the book a bestseller).

References to Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the “transgender and gay agenda” have infiltrated the Republican discourse during the midterms. Communism and Socialism are used both interchangeably and incorrectly. At the April 25 debate for GOP candidates for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, these buzzwords and terms were a constant, juxtaposed against the amorphous yet repetitively invoked “freedom.” President Biden was portrayed as a pro-LGBTQ Socialist patterning his administration on Communist China.

And as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on April 27, GOP front-runner for Pennsylvania governor, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, campaigned at an event promoting QAnon in Gettysburg at a far-right Christian conference called “Patriots Arise for God and Country.”

When billionaire Elon Musk launched his hostile takeover of Twitter, insisting that the social media platform had become too woke and free speech was under attack, marginalized groups of Black, feminist, LGBTQ, immigrant and disabled people who have found a home on Twitter and have organized there for over a decade worried that Musk would ruin the site. Some decided to exit immediately, but most, as with Facebook, have decided to wait and see whether Musk impacts Twitter more negatively than previous CEO billionaire Jack Dorsey.

Fox News and a slew of right-wing pundits saw Musk purchasing Twitter as a win for the right and a source of liberal tears: Musk has intimated in recent weeks that Donald Trump and other conservatives like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson should not have been banned from Twitter for disinformation and misinformation related to both the election and COVID-19. Like many conservatives, Musk has decried “the woke mob” and “cancel culture” as victimizing right-wing voices and white men specifically.

On April 26, after the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris had tested positive for COVID, Musk tweeted, “The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.”

Musk followed that vengeful anti-science tweet with garbled commentary on his perceptions of free speech and censorship. But Musk himself, with his 86 million followers, has actually never been censored on Twitter despite regularly posting homophobic, transphobic and misogynist memes. As recently as April 22, Musk tweeted an unflattering photo of Bill Gates beside a pregnant man emoji with the crude caption “in case u need to lose a boner fast.”

What happens to Twitter remains to be seen. The new SEC filing puts the closing time frame on the deal at around September. The filing states that the deal could be terminated if it doesn’t close by 5 p.m. PT on October 24, 2022, right before the November election.

Social media has played a huge role in politics in recent years, particularly in the past two presidential elections. Twitter is, as Musk declared April 25, “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

But who gets to debate? The GOP wants to maintain a nation where people of color can’t speak or teach about the history of slavery and genocide because it might unsettle white people. The GOP wants to silence any discourse on LGBTQ people, using the rubric of “parental rights” to control who speaks and about what, despite the overwhelming need to support LGBTQ youth. Feminists, immigrants, activists, all are under attack from the GOP, who are also seeking to make book bans endemic.

The talking points in the midterm elections will be a template for the 2024 presidential election. Free speech, and whose speech, is on the ballot. It’s not hyperbole to say vote as if your life and your democracy depended on it. If the Republicans win this round, it will be more than Twitter that gets a free speech makeover.

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