Freedom, unplugged

All Charli Collison wanted was a chance to speak.

The nine-year-old heard about plans to turn her favorite park, in her hometown of Lansing, Michigan, into a new entrance for a local golf course. She found out her mom was going to a city council meeting to protest that construction. Charli had protests of her own. She and her friends are especially fond of a rock-climbing wall in that park–one likely to be removed to make way for the golf carts.

The idea of a city council–a group of people you could actually talk to about your concerns–was exciting to Charli, so she asked if she could come along and speak to the council, too. Her mom thought that was a fine idea.

Lansing City Council President Patricia Spitzley did not. She invited four adults to come to the microphone, but pointedly ignored Charli.

“I have strong feelings about the role of children and what their role should be,” Spitzley said. “I don’t believe that nine-year-old children should be giving public comment. I just don’t.”

Problem is, the city’s own attorney, Jim Smiertka, admits that the state’s Open Meeting Act makes no allowance for an age limit on public speakers. So Charli was within her rights as a citizen – albeit a fourth-grade, non-voting citizen – to ask for a turn at the public microphone. Other speakers at the meeting recognized that, as did other members of the council, who have since apologized to the little girl.

So far, no one seems to have apologized to McKenzie Kyger. McKenzie is a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She’s been having trouble getting to a microphone, too.

For several weeks this spring, Evergreen was engulfed in racially charged student protests that drew national attention and turned the campus upside-down. Earlier this month, the school’s board of trustees invited feedback from students on what had happened, and McKenzie went to the meeting, intending to share her perspective. It wasn’t the first such meeting, and it wasn’t McKenzie’s first attempt to be heard.

“I have been to several meetings to speak,” she told the trustees. “I’ve been told several times that I’m not allowed to speak – because I’m white.”

McKenzie’s persistence is admirable, and it is fondly to be hoped that Charli will emulate it, in the years to come. But it will fall to Charli’s parents to teach what a public official would not: that no government, at any level, has the right to silence a voice raised respectfully in public forums, not on account of age, not on account of race, not on account of faith or political persuasion.

That might seem a given, in a nation built on America’s constitutional foundations, but it’s a lesson countless thousands of our young people are missing out on. On college campuses coast to coast, students are falling prey to administrators and fellow students determined to silence anyone they disagree with, or whose message has the potential to “offend” any one of the innately offend-able souls all around them.

We see it everywhere. With words and violence, from positions of authority and positions of sheer force, so many are so determined to obliterate debate, cut off conversation, rob their fellow Americans of their most essential freedom: their right to speak, to share ideas, to provoke the thoughts and influence the decisions of those around them in the public square.

In the end, we can do two things in the face of such intimidation. One, speak out anyway – find the courage and grace to persist in defying these self-appointed censors of the American mind and message. And two–teach our children to do the same. Teach them now how to express themselves effectively and respectfully, and invest in them the courage to wisely use that priceless gift.

It’s a lesson Charli Collison might well have grasped, intuitively, that night at the city council meeting. Instead, like so many of her fellow citizens, she is learning it the hard way.