Last week, I received a phone call at my office from New Rochelle Development Commissioner Luis Aragon. Ashley Aldrich, the NR Future Liason, urged NR Future supporters to sign a petition advocating for New Rochelle’s downtown redevelopment plan, joining in a competition for a ten million dollar grant application; I commented that instead, New Rochelle’s City leadership should focus its attention on servicing those who already live here, rather than endeavoring to attract new residents in new developments that, in my view, we are not going to be able to service. I attached a link to a news article from CBS News about New Rochelle still being plagued by potholes at this late date, even after such a mild winter.
The Commissioner called to ask why I would oppose this opportunity to apply for this grant for our City. In explaining my reasons, our discussion led to a fairly extended conversation about the state of development in New Rochelle, and its direction, and then further into my perception of the City’s response to those who expressed points of view which were not in alignment with that of the City. The Commissioner was quick to assure me of two things: first, in his opinion, his office was indeed very responsive, and was listening to everyone’s concerns, and addressing them, continuously, and second, there really are only a few people opposed to the any of the changes to the City that the Development Office is proposing. Like five or six people–the same five or six. I did tell him I found that laughable, and we did both chuckle. My conversation with the Commissioner ended on a pleasant note, as it has on other occasions.
But the conversation left me uneasy. What was particularly unsettling is that unlike other criticisms I had directed towards the City and its officials, this was done via social media, and actually in the context of a comment on someone else’s post; it wasn’t even intended so much as a direct attack, of a particular action, but more of a well, why not this instead. The entire interaction left me thinking, what else are they monitoring? Are they monitoring every New Rochelle resident’s social media posts? Are they monitoring every comment I make? Every comment everyone makes? Or only the comments of the people that they consider to be "the enemy"? Only those they consider to be "harsh negative activists"? Only the comments of people they consider to be" dangerous"? How do they define people to be dangerous?
We like to think we live in a civilized society. We take certain facts of our civilized life for granted; we expect to be able to exercise our religion; we expect to be able to go for a walk, read a book, or have a conversation, without asking permission. We expect to be able to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television or connect our devices, and from there, learn what our government is doing, from the media. We expect to be able to be able to express personal opinions about these things, without restriction or restraint. Why is this right so essential in a civilized society–and why is it slipping away?
The right to free speech in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. This right encompasses a citizen’s ability to discredit, question and even embarrass the government, its policies and its officials. There has been litigation about free speech, but the right remains strong here in the United States. So, what’s the concern? And what’s happening here?
At issue is the interaction of the government official with the ordinary citizen who has exercised his right to criticize his government. The government official has power over every citizen, a power that should never be abused. In recent suppressions of free speech, the ordinary citizen is contacted by the government official, purportedly to personally hear the citizen’s concerns, which were expressed in a public forum. The official then attempts to persuade the citizen to come around to the point of view of the government. The citizen continues his criticism. At some point later, the private citizen needs to interact with the government, on a completely unrelated matter, but one that falls directly within the purview of the bureaucrat. As the citizen’s matter lingers, unattended and unresolved, we recognize that the Framers wrote the First Amendment to preclude the tyrannical behavior of a bureaucrat seeking to silence protesting citizens.
Let’s bring this into context. What happens if or when I or a client need to apply for a building permit? What if I have a client that needs to appear before the Planning Board that this Mayor appoints; what if I am making capital improvements to my home that need to be approved by this official’s Building Department? Is my criticism going to hurt me, my family, my client, my career or my livelihood?
It is precisely this petty bullying that the First Amendment bars. No citizen should find himself at the mercy of the government which he is entitled to criticize. Such bullying places the ordinary citizen in an extraordinary situation. Should the citizen exercise his protected rights, if he is unhappy with governmental action or inaction, and hence face personal risk? The citizen should never have to face the untenable choice of the exercise of free expression versus the potential for the wrath of a bureaucrat. The Framers of our Constitution ensured that we do not have to make that choice.
This kind of suppression of free thought and of free speech is a form of totalitarianism akin to that found in police states where compliance is created by guns. Clearly, the power of a government official should never be abused. Such abuse, in a vengeful fashion, is such a fundamental, heinous breach of fiduciary responsibility that it’s almost incomprehensible to think that such behavior could occur here–but then we think of recent headlines, for example, about IRS officials targeting conservative groups, and we realize that it certainly could, and does, happen, and it happens everywhere. It’s sometimes hard for government officials to recognize their own bias, and their own misbehavior. It’s a fine line between reaching out to communicate with a citizen and seeking to intimidate, but a line that can never be crossed.
The bad news is that there are some who would be afraid of the call from the government official. The good news is, that thankfully, not all of us are afraid. Patriots still recognize that the First Amendment is very, very strong–and they can and should rely on it to freely criticize what displeases them. It is, after all, an inalienable, fundamental right.
I host a show, called This ‘n That, on WVOX, 1460 am, wvox.com, on Monday morning at 9:00 am. I urge you to listen in and call me to discuss at 914-636–0110. I look forward to hearing from you.