We jeopardize our freedoms when we take them for granted by Ken Woodley

3/19/2020, 6 p.m.
Delivering newspapers as a boy growing up in Richmond during the late 1960s and early ’70s, headlines and stories flew ...

Delivering newspapers as a boy growing up in Richmond during the late 1960s and early ’70s, headlines and stories flew from my right hand onto front porch steps and stoops.

The world of my youth was a violent place: War, assassination and civil unrest. I had to wash the ink of those days from my fingers each morning before breakfast, but the crucial role played by those printed words left an indelible impression. When I learned in school that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution included protecting the freedom of the press, I understood why. Spending my entire professional career as a journalist brought daily reinforcement that the Constitution’s sense of priorities was correct. A free press is inextricably linked to the defense of every freedom we cherish as Americans. Anything that diminishes the First Amendment threatens the Constitution itself, especially if that threat comes from the president of the United States.

On April 5, 2019, President Trump declared this regarding the nation’s press: “They are truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

Our own president, not some dictator of an authoritarian regime behind the Iron Curtain of my youth, composed those words and launched them through his Twitter account. The all-capitalized letters are President Trump’s own, emphasizing the ferocity of the attack.

I cannot wash those words away. And President Trump has repeated them, over and over, regarding members of the press corps and their media outlets. His diabolical “fake news” is part of our national vocabulary. Our own president is doing this, not some foreign propagandist agent. And the damage will not disappear the moment he leaves office.

My initial reaction was to pursue state legislation declaring the Commonwealth of Virginia a First Amendment Sanctuary. But in bouncing the idea off U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, I saw my error. “I don’t think we should pick and choose which provisions we like,” he responded via email. “We should follow them all.”

The senator is correct. My original idea would have produced unintended collateral damage. Singling out one amendment — even the First Amendment — inherently diminishes the rest.

I believe the Commonwealth of Virginia should declare itself a “U.S. Constitution Heritage State” and have forwarded this proposal to the office of Gov. Ralph S. Northam. Our Commonwealth is the birthplace of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.” If not Virginia, who? If not now, when?

Yes, it would be symbolic, but symbols matter. They send unmistakable messages and have the power to promote good or evil. Symbols of hatred, such as burning crosses and swastikas, have endured for decades.

“The blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” that the Constitution declares is meant to secure constant nurturing and protection to ensure they apply equally to all people.

This proposal is not anti-Trump. It is pro-Constitution and all of the freedoms contained within it.

The entire nation should be a U.S. Constitution “sanctuary.” Members of Congress swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Members of the Virginia General Assembly promise to “support the Constitution,” as do all local elected officials.

But that same oath was sworn in the 1950s and 60s when Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors voted to defund public education and lock every public school rather than integrate classrooms. Even though every American child had a Constitutional right to a public education, it took the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 Griffin decision to reaffirm that right.

The moment we take our constitutional rights for granted — even something as basic and seemingly inviolate as public education — we place them in jeopardy.

Let’s publicly embrace our constitutional rights, instead. Make Virginia a U.S. Constitution Heritage State. Promote and publicize the fact. Incorporate that phrase at Virginia welcome centers and tourism facilities. Place signage where every interstate, primary and secondary road crosses our state line. Let everyone driving into Virginia be aware that they have arrived in a place where all amendments and every right are held precious.

By reminding others, we may also remind ourselves.

The writer is a former writer and editor at The Farmville Herald.