The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech to all people, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying. The town of South Hadley in Massachusetts learned that the hard way, as they have paid out a large sum of money for attempting to silence a critic at a public school board meeting in April, 2010. Luke Gelinas was at the meeting to read a prepared statement in which he criticized the school board’s inaction regarding the bullying of a student — inaction which may have led to the student’s suicide. According to the Boston Globe, Gelinas was interrupted by school board member Edward Boisselle, who told him “you’re done” and explicitly said “this is not your First Amendment right”. In fact, it was not only Gelinas’s right to speak at a meeting with public officials, but I would also argue that it is Boisselle’s duty to uphold that right. Gelinas was escorted out of the meeting, but wasn’t finished. He filed a complaint and has waged a two-year legal battle to affirm his rights. Today, via a settlement of $75,000, he has been vindicated.
What kind of country would we be if all detractors and critics and informed intellectuals were silenced by those in power and led out of the room for holding an unpopular opinion? Well, we’d be 18th-century Britain. This is exactly the reason the Declaration of Independence was written. “Taxation without representation”, a popular phrase at the time, was really more about how the British government refused to listen to the needs of the colonists. The Americans were, to draw a parallel to this case, told to leave and that they did not have the right to speak freely in Parliament. In response, they waged a revolution, built a new country, and the rest is history. While I’m not about to recommend breaking ties with South Hadley and forming a new city, I will posit this case as a reminder that the Bill of Rights is a document crafted to protect the people of the US from their government, and this is precisely why.