In the present circumstances, no one can afford to assume that someone else will solve their problems. Each one of us has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction. Good wishes are not sufficient; we must become actively engaged. – Dalai Lama
It’s always so remarkable to me how someone as anachronistic seeming as the orange robed Dalai Lama so consistently has his philosophical finger on the pulse of the modern world. One reason for this, of course, is that the “modern world” is modern only technologically. In most other respects, we remain quite timelessly primitive in behavior and sensibility. “In the present circumstances” could just as easily have applied to an early Roman angry at his self-absorbed Senate as it does to contemporary society and politics in America.
It is not enough to wish, as the Dalai Lama sagely observes – we must be actively engaged in our world. Our forefathers even built a security measure for our involvement right into our Constitution. It’s called the First Amendment. The First Amendment, says, “ 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.”
I exercised my First Amendment rights nearly 70 times last week, speaking out like that timeless angry Roman. I vented my ire with the Florida state Legislature’s partisan political posturing during the foreshortened July 20 special session called by the Governor to consider a ballot intitiative in November banning oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. I minced no words reminding representatives that they serve the people, not their own personal ambitions.
Commensurately, the First Amendment also gives groups like the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church an unabridged freedom of speech as well, and the right to assemble in public to share their message, even among those who may find it offensive and don’t want to hear it. I don’t like them, but in order to enjoy my own right to free speech and assembly, I must respect theirs.
Earlier this year, however, UIC student Jason Connell turned a Westboro Baptist Church protest into a First Amendment opportunity of his own, capitalizing on the outrage the group inspired among other to raise money for organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, International AIDS Foundation and the Chicago-based Jerusalem Open House that are the usual subject the group’s hate-filled vitriole. Donations were named in honor of the Westboro Baptist Church and community thank you cards will be sent from the non-profits to WBC leader Fred Phelps.
Connell called it a “lemons to lemonade” situation, but he made it far more than that – he turned an expression of hate into an opportunity for love and community. And he provided an excellent example of why we all need the right to assemble and to speak our minds.