Op-ed: This President’s Day, defend the First Amendment

As seen in The Hill

By Mark Lucas

In many ways, free speech is the right that protects all others, reinforcing every freedom that we hold dear and that so many have fought and died for.

This Presidents’ Day, we should reflect on the reasons our Founding Fathers enshrined this right in our First Amendment. And we must acknowledge that this fundamental right is under attack—even for those who have fought to protect it.

At the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been plagued by scandals during recent years, employees have faced retaliation for using their First Amendment rights and speaking out about the agency’s wrongdoings. The VA often works harder to punish whistleblowers than it does to solve problems, putting veterans’ lives at risk.

Brandon Coleman, a Marine Corps veteran, began working as a therapist at the VA hospital in Phoenix to provide care for his brothers and sisters in arms. When he found that veterans there were dying due to negligence, he spoke up—and for that, he was punished. When he told management what was going on, they told him that’s “how people get fired.” They even tried to use his own personal medical records against him, and issued a gag order to silence him.

Coleman’s VA experience reminds of President Abraham Lincoln, who famously said that we as a nation will never be destroyed from the outside. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” he said— if the United States loses its freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Veterans like Brandon fought to defend us against external threats, but more and more are realizing that the biggest threat to our freedom is a government that is quick to limit our inalienable rights. The oath servicemen and women take to support and defend our Constitution doesn’t end when we hang up our uniforms and return to civilian life.

Brandon’s case is one of many instances in which the very same government that’s supposed to be protecting the right to free speech has tried to suppress it. It’s not just happening at the VA—look at the way the government has intimidated religious groups by leaking donor lists, or the scandal at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), in which the agency targeted certain groups because of their views on public policy.

Time and again, the government has silenced those it disagrees with by using citizens’ private information against them. Which makes it all the more concerning that a growing number of states are now trying to get more information about Americans who exercise their First Amendment rights.

In South Carolina, legislation was recently filed in the state Senate that would force essentially every nonprofit organization that educates citizens about public policy to disclose to the government the names, addresses, and employers of supporters who donate more than a certain dollar amount. Similar efforts have surfaced in both Nebraska and South Dakota. Touted under the banner of transparency, these so-called “disclosure laws” are nothing more than thinly-veiled attacks on free speech.

Throughout our history, the First Amendment has allowed citizens to challenge the government and powerful groups in all sectors, rooting out fraud and corruption. It has allowed marginalized groups to speak out against injustice, spurring progress toward equality. It has allowed millions of Americans to contribute to a marketplace of ideas, fostering a free society, a thriving culture and the largest economy in the world.

All too often today, our free speech right that was designed to hold the government accountable is being used by the government to harass, intimidate, and silence the very citizens the right is meant to protect.

With a new administration and a new Congress, there may now be a real opportunity to scale back and prevent further threats facing our First Amendment rights. But during these turbulent political times, we can’t take that for granted.

Abolition, the women’s movement, civil rights – the inalienable right to free speech is what gave the foot soldiers in all of these movements the ability to speak up for themselves. Now that free speech is under attack, will we speak up for it?