Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

— First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

Freedom of Speech! We all want it. For western societies, free speech has been a democratic ideal that goes back to ancient Greece. The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, shared its constitution with the European colonialists, notably Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The Great Law of Peace included free speech among many rights that the Six Nations practiced.

Living freely means speaking, voting, marching, standing or sitting for what matters, without threats. In 1964, the “Berkeley Free Speech Movement” arose because students insisted that the university lift the ban on campus political activities. Students asserted their right to free speech and academic freedom.

Today, closer to home, the First Amendment is simmering around the region. Geneva and Enfield are currently embroiled in free speech controversies. January 2020, Geneva Councilwoman Laura Salamendra took her seat on the City Council and refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. Also opening the new year, the Enfield Town Board voted to skip the pledge to be more inclusive of those who have no religious preference. Some citizens in both municipalities were offended and have spoken out. Salamendra responded: “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and my allegiance is with the people of Geneva and the world, not the flag.”

As an activist, I exercised my First Amendment rights demonstrating and blockading the Crestwood/Stagecoach Gas Services operations near Watkins Glen. I was arrested on two occasions with 657 others, including Laura Salamendra. We acted to protect Seneca Lake.

I was voted onto the board of trustees of the Village of Interlaken in March 2017. I was elected to work for the common good and well being of everyone in my village. Can I still be an activist? There will be consequences and pushback to what a public official says. In the words of Enfield Town Supervisor Beth McGee, “I like people being engaged.” McGee thinks the process of respectful dialog at town meetings is worth the effort. Regardless of what side of an issue we take, speaking and acting freely is not easy.

I’ve been inspired to speak out by the courage and principled honesty that McGee and Salamendra expressed. I do not recite the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of village meetings. I stand with others out of respect for the board and the public who believe in the Constitution and the democratic process.

I don’t know if my fellow board members or others hear my silence. No one has asked me about it. I refuse to pledge allegiance to a government under any god. I don’t know if god exists. Also, “under god” was inserted into the pledge in 1954 during the “Red hysteria” era.

As a nation with diverse religious traditions and practices, the separation of church and state is a good thing. I’m in favor of the government doing nothing to support or suppress religious activities. Implied in the First Amendment is freedom from religion. “Under god” should be removed from the pledge if we are to uphold the spirit and word of our Constitution.

There are other reasons for me not to pledge allegiance to the government of the United States. Americans have the “best democracy money can buy.” It is corrupt and is undermining our security and trust. The 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States on Citizens United made it “legal” to make unlimited campaign contributions to candidates for office.

Just as important, if not more so, the current administration in Washington has eliminated protections for streams and unconnected wetlands. I cannot pledge allegiance to a government that neglects protecting and cleaning the nation’s water supply.

We have a constitutionally protected right to free speech. We also have a responsibility to defend what we say with facts. Each of us decides if an utterance or action has validity and merit. To those who want to take a stand, a knee, or a seat, consider the goals and possible consequences of your actions. Being responsible and respectful is a challenge in the midst of a quarrel. It can be awkward to disagree with someone and continue to work together.

McGee welcomes the open dialog, as I do. Freedom is a shared value that no one should be denied so long as it does not injure another. If we’re unhappy with an elected official, try persuading them to see your point of view. Or, vote them out of office. Let’s practice freedom and democracy with inclusiveness and a good mind.

Tony Del Plato is an Interlaken Village Trustee and its water commissioner.

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