By David Tirrell-Wysocki
There’s a reason why the protections articulated in the First Amendment were chosen to be the first words added to the Constitution in 1791.
The amendment establishes five freedoms that define the essence of our democracy. It affects every American, every day, by prohibiting the government from interfering with our religion, speech, press and ability to peacefully protest, and by giving us the right to petition the government to change things.
It is often said that Americans will disagree with someone’s beliefs, but fight to the death to defend his or her right to express those beliefs. That’s a tough standard, especially when deeply held beliefs are increasingly divergent, and expressing them draws increasingly angry, hostile and even violent responses.
Each year, the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications recognizes New Hampshire individuals who exemplify the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment, sometimes at risk of harsh criticism — or worse.
Our First Amendment recipient two years ago was James Foley, the New Hampshire journalist slain by terrorists in the Middle East for doing his job.
Over the years, we recognized journalists, judges, lawyers, teachers, lawmakers and everyday citizens who have spoken out.
On November 17, we will honor two everyday citizens and the long-time director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire:
• The late David Pearl was an outspoken advocate for open government in his town of Hooksett and in neighboring Pembroke. His advocacy drew criticism and praise. He had to wonder at one meeting whether he would be arrested for raising questions. Pearl worked tirelessly to shine light on local government, being instrumental in updating Hooksett’s cable system to televise public meetings and creating an online group in Hooksett for residents to post their own articles about town happenings. He died in June.
• Timberlane Regional School Board member Donna Green has been involved in several First Amendment and open government issues, including pushing back against “School Board Rules” that required all members to publicly support board decisions. This year, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in Green’s favor in a case in which she challenged her own school district for refusing to release documents in electronic or digital form when available.
• Claire Ebel, who retired as executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire in 2013, is receiving our Quill & Ink Award in recognition of her life’s work for standing up in defense of the rights of New Hampshire residents. The self-proclaimed “First Amendment nutcase” says the First Amendment is the only amendment we need.
“I think that if we only had one amendment in the Bill of Rights and it was the First Amendment, that we would still be served well as a civil society,” Ebel said when she retired.
A civil society. Which gets back to disagreeing with someone’s message, while cherishing their right to deliver it. Too often, disagreements take a form that should not be welcome in a civil society, a form that does to respect freedom of expression.
Recognizing First Amendment advocates such as David Pearl, Donna Green and Claire Ebel is important to the Nackey Loeb School and should be important to all, even those who disagree with the beliefs of honorees or the expressed beliefs of others.
The recognition honors not just individuals, but rights so highly cherished that they were the first words added to the Constitution 225 years ago, rights we should continue to be cherish today.
David Tirrell-Wysocki is executive director of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester, N.H. Tickets to the 14th annual Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Awards can be purchased here.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.