Remembering the First Amendment: This far and no farther


By James Preston Allen, Publisher

It came to me the other day, as I was standing in the middle of a public street at a local farmer’s market. I had to defend my self, my newspaper and the First Amendment from the most exquisite form of censorship: The denial of distribution in public places with the added threat of arrest if I didn’t stop. And, it doesn’t seem to get any easier either.

Let me start at the beginning. Back when I was in high school, when the Vietnam War was raging, the free speech movement was just being born on college campuses. I was an idealistic student with access to a Unitarian Church mimeograph machine and a seemingly endless supply of paper. The only problem was that as students, we were prohibited from distributing “unauthorized” literature on campus, under threat of suspension if we were caught. Our group never was.

Many years have passed since those youthful days. I was surprised recently when two things happened. First was a chance encounter at the Long Beach Airport with a woman who attended the same high school as I did, who was only a few years behind me. She also fought free speech battles at the school, inspired by some previous students unknown to her. However, she and her friends were caught and expelled. They hired an ACLU lawyer and fought to have the state law overturned and advanced the cause of students’ rights and free speech on California public school campuses.

The second was the discovery of an original copy of one of our first mimeographed publications by an old high school friend that contacted me via Facebook. For those of a younger generation, the mimeograph is the grandfather of the modern copy machine. What struck me upon reviewing this long forgotten document was the No. 1 item on a list of grievances that demanded, not asked, but demanded, that the administration, “allow any student the right to express a grievance concerning an activity, school policy or incident to the administration and the student body [in the school quad] during lunch on a daily basis.”

Back in those days, that was a bold demand. And as I think about it today, I’m not sure too many of today’s students would be so bold, even though they have every right to do so.

I’m not so sure how we mustered up the courage to confront our school’s administration back then, but I’d bet that it had something to do with reading the Bill of Rights in our government class and being clandestinely encouraged by sympathetic teachers.

I even remember that at one point a student was brought into juvenile court by his parents for being “incorrigible,” along with a list of complaints. The parents presented the juvenile judge with a copy of one of our finer publications. And on the back, printed boldly in black and white on this damning piece of evidence– was a reproduction of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The judge, eyeing this “incorrigible document” had the presence of mind to ask, “And just what do you find wrong with the Bill of Rights that it is leading your son astray?”

So over the years, I have come to understand that for many people the Bill of Rights has become more like the American flag, it is just a symbol of our freedom, not a body of laws that actually protects our liberties. That is unless you stand up and say, “this far and no farther.” It is one thing to have this founding document revered and encased in glass at the Smithsonian Museum or printed in some textbook as some ancient document. It is quite another to put it into practice to test that these truths remain self-evident, testing to see if this old parchment still holds any meaning in the town square or the public school.

I would argue that too many only give lip service to the idea when they blithely regurgitate the Pledge of Allegiance: “With liberty and justice for all.”

The actual ideals are still an anathema to those who have power. Just look at the police responses to the Occupy movement across this nation or the pepper spraying of student protesters at UC Davis this past year. Things haven’t changed that much from the days when Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered the tear gassing of People’s Park in Berkeley or the Los Angeles Police Department’s brute force response at the 1967 Century City anti-war rally, later deemed a “police riot” whereby the commanders lost control of their officers. It wasn’t the first time or the last time here in Los Angeles as we have witnessed throughout the interceding years.

So here I am, all these years later standing in the town square demanding once again, “this far and no farther,” engaging in stare-down contests with the CEO of the very organization on which I sit on the board of directors with at the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce. The same CEO who told me she’ll fix this, but then refuses to let me as a member of that board review the new farmer’s market contract to address first amendment concerns. Some people have counseled me to be polite, others have said, “We’re working on it,” and the CEO says, “I’ll ask legal counsel for advice.”

To all of this, there is really only one answer. If you are going to proceed as a legally incorporated non-profit 501c(6) in this country, you have to abide by the law, not choose the ones that are most convenient. Especially in this case, where freedom of speech was first and foremost in the minds of the founding fathers. Not some of it, or part of it, but all of it! Even to the extent that if someone wants to hold a prayer service in the middle of the market, you let him or her do it, because you don’t have the authority to stop them.

Americans have to put up with this kind of backpedaling by a group that would espouse the commercial free market principles while discounting the free market of ideas. You can’t have one without the other. A vigorous civic debate of the issues of our time has as much standing at the farmer’s market as it does at City Hall, either inside or out. And if the San Pedro Chamber cannot guarantee this, then the city should revoke their permit for a street closure until they can figure it out.








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