How Much Are You Willing to Pay to Have Free Speech?

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James McHenry was born in Ireland in 1753. His Scots-Irish family send him to America in 1771 after he became sick from studying too hard. He may also have been sent to check out the colonies in anticipation of the entire family’s eventual immigration. In fact, a year later, the McHenry clan settled in what were then (for only a few years more) the British Colonies.

McHenry finished his studies in Philadelphia before serving as an apprentice under Benjamin Rush. You may remember Rush as the doctor/patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence, the founder of Dickinson College and the mentor/teacher of both Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark fame) and future president William Henry Harrison.

Perhaps influenced by Rush, or maybe the whole Philadelphia experience, McHenry joined the cause of the patriots. After the British captured and then released him, McHenry served on the staffs of both George Washington and General Lafayette.

Two things about McHenry stand out in his long and illustrious career as a Founding Father. It’s likely you don’t know his connection to either.

The first is the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Francis Scott Key wrote the poem titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry” while watching the British bombard the fort in the Baltimore Harbor during the late evening/early morning of September 13-14, 1814. Those words would later become the lyrics of our national anthem. That fort was Fort McHenry, named after James McHenry.

The second is a story you’re no doubt familiar with, but less familiar with its source. Following the successful conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, McHenry wrote this story in his diary:

“A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.”

For those curious, McHenry later added a footnote to this entry indicating the “lady” was Elizabeth Willing Powel, wife of Samuel Powel, the once (1775-1776) and future (1789-1790) mayor of Philadelphia.

“A republic, if you can keep it.” These words exemplify both the triumph and fragility of our grand American Experiment. At various times in our nation’s history, the citizens have brought us to the edge of Franklin’s stark warning.

It seems as if today is one of those times.

For all the power of its fundamental text, it remains the Bill of Rights, an addendum critical to passing the Constitution, that represents the foundation of our nation’s instruction manual.

And within that Bill of Rights sits its cornerstone, the First Amendment:

“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.”

For several decades now, America has gnawed at the sanctity of those words. Within the last week, we’ve seen two flagrant attempts to obviate the First Amendment.

Writing in the November 16, 2023 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Amesbury and Catherine O’Donnell of Arizona State University are none too blunt in their assessment. They title the article “Dear Administrators: Enough With The Free-Speech Rhetoric! It Concedes Too Much To Right-Wing Agendas.”

Their essential premise is: “Our contention is that calls for greater freedom of speech on campuses, however well-intentioned, risk undermining colleges’ central purpose, namely, the production of expert knowledge and understanding, in the sense of disciplinarily warranted opinion. Expertise requires freedom of speech, but it is the result of a process of winnowing and refinement that is premised on the understanding that not all opinions are equally valid. Efforts to ‘democratize’ opinion are antithetical to the role colleges play in educating the public and informing democratic debate. We urge administrators toward caution before uncritically endorsing calls for intellectual diversity in place of academic expertise.”

We might forgive these two professors for not understanding how once certain scientific theories have since been proven false (e.g., Phrenology, Steady-State Theory, Spontaneous Generation, etc..)

We are less forgiving (especially since Amesbury is a professor of religious studies and philosophy and O’Donnell is a professor of history) when their insistence on “expert knowledge” comes straight from the same Vatican Court that labeled Galileo as a heretic for his role in spreading “disinformation” (i.e., Copernicus’ theory that it was the Sun, not the Earth, that is the center of the Solar System).

Ah, “disinformation.” That’s the new buzzword for censorship. You traditionalists out there need not worry, though, for “hate speech” remains high on that same list of trigger words used to justify eliminating the First Amendment.

Our own Governor, seemingly inspired by such academic thinking as we see coming out of Arizona State, has decided New York State must step in to thwart wrongthink. As Democrats and Republican anti-Trumpers nation-wide spread mis-directing allegations that “Trump = Hitler,” Kathy Hochul has just instituted a new policy straight from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

On November 21, 2023, New York’s Governor announced she was allocating $3 million to fight hate speech. It may sound like a pittance, but it is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent.

In doing this, Hochul appears to be using the outdated “clear and present danger” test to remove First Amendment protections. This standard emerged in Supreme Court rulings in the early twentieth century and lasted for about fifty years.

For the first century or so of its existence, the Supreme Court shied away from commenting on First Amendment issues. The earliest—and, until today, greatest—challenge to the First Amendment was the infamous Alien and Seditions Acts. Rather than ruling on this, the Supreme Court deferred to the legislature. When Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency, he quickly and unequivocally reversed this law.

At the height of World War I and the rise of communism, the Supreme Court finally stepped in. In ruling against the Socialist Party of America official Charles Schenck, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes created the “clear and present danger” test for free speech cases. He wrote, “the question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” The Court expanded the definition of the test when it upheld the conviction of activist Eugene Debs later that year.

Succeeding Courts overturned free speech convictions because they failed to meet the standards of the “clear and present danger” test.

In one case, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “a function of free speech under our system is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.

This represents the beginning of the unraveling of the “clear and present danger” test. In another case, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson wrote: “In each case [courts] must ask whether the gravity of the ‘evil,’ discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as necessary to avoid the danger.

It was in that same case where Justice Felix Frankfurter’s concurring opinion finally ended the “clear and present danger” test by introducing the “balancing test.” He wrote, “The demands of free speech in a democratic society as well as the interest in national security are better served by candid and informed weighing of the competing interests, within the confines of the judicial process.”

The coming of the Vietnam War protests brought a series of free speech cases which essentially restored the First Amendment to its original purity (for non-commercial purposes, at least).

The Brandenburg v Ohio case in 1969 brought down the hammer when the majority ruled, “Our decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not allow a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or cause such action.”

In a different case two years later, Justice John Marshall Harlan II summed up the primacy of the First Amendment when he wrote in the majority opinion, “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.

Of interest and relevance given the ongoing New York case against Donald Trump is the Supreme Court ruling in 1941 which provides that public criticism of court officials must not be abridged which it wrote, “The assumption that respect for the judiciary can be won by shielding judges from published criticism wrongly appraises the character of American public opinion. For it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions. And an enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt much more than it would enhance respect.

Finally, and to prove this is truly a bipartisan issue, we have Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, echoing Ron DeSantis’ similar sentiments, vowing to outlaw anonymous speakers on social media platforms. Granted, they both later qualified their earlier comments, but their knee-jerk reaction to unfavored speech shows neither side of the political spectrum is immune.

Maybe their reversal came about when a legal adviser reminded them that the Supreme Court stated the First Amendment preserves anonymity. In a 1960 case, Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion, “There can be no doubt that such an identification requirement would tend to restrict freedom to distribute information and thereby freedom of expression. … Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind.

Circling back to Hochul and her attempt to force school children to adopt whatever prevailing narrative New York State compels them to abide by, this, too, has failed to meet the standards of the Supreme Court. In one case, Justice Robert H. Jackson majority opinion plainly stated, “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

And yet, Hochul says this, “We’re very focused on the data we’re collecting from surveillance efforts – what’s being said on social media platforms. And we have launched an effort to be able to counter some of the negativity and reach out to people when we see hate speech being spoken about on online platforms.

Maybe those same school kids targeted by Hochul can remind her of that popular playground adage: “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

You can’t be in favor of free speech and believe the government should ban “hate” speech you disagree with.

That’s how you lose a republic.

Growing Old With The Sandman

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I’ve been to Bills games. I’ve been in Bills games’ traffic jams. I know how to navigate those slowdowns. I don’t have the patience to wait. I see the shortcuts like I see the back of my hand on the steering wheel. Most get overcome with frustration at the sight of these roadway snarls. I buckle down with calm confidence. I know the way out. And I’m not afraid to take it.

The Adam Sandler “I Missed You Tour” wasn’t supposed to be a Bills’ game. Even a sold-out Blue Cross Arena would require only a fraction of the people.

And yet, there we were. Stuck in traffic on 490 West.

It seems like everyone made the same decision. Park at the Civic Center Garage and stay out of the rain. Or sleet. Or snow. Or whatever decides to precipitate from the skies above.

I wanted to make it a relaxing evening. A casual drift down memory lane. A respite from Continue Reading “Growing Old With The Sandman”

How Will You Repay Your Debt To Humanity?

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What legacy will you leave to mankind? Your answer may very well depend on how one asks the question. Be warned. The particular framing of the query I just posed can lead you mistakenly astray.

What’s the difference between the lead question and the question in the title?

Take a look at them both. How do the specific words used make you feel when you read them? What does “leaving a legacy” conjure up in your mind versus “repaying a debt”? And how does your picture of “mankind” contrast to what your mind sees when reading the term “humanity?”

It’s all about connotation, not denotation. Denotation means the raw dispassionate facts. Connotation favors the emotion. And, being a human, emotion rules. (Sorry to all you Continue Reading “How Will You Repay Your Debt To Humanity?”

Blasdell, The Beatles, And Brotherhood

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There was always The Beatles. Or at least it seemed that way.

I was too young to remember a time before The Beatles.

Strike that.

I certainly do remember the years before The Beatles (or, more appropriately, their music) landed on American shores. I can recall several memorable scenes from the time I was one or two years old.

I remember watching Mercury launches on the black-and-white TV in the living room of our apartment. I remember waiting for my mother to return home (from either work or school—that part I can’t remember) in that same living room on 83 Victory Avenue. I remember taking walks on that same street.

I remember staying at my grandparents on Ingham Avenue while my parents went out. I slept in the crib in the back room. Rather, I was supposed to be sleeping in the crib in the back room. What I really did was stand up against the railing and stare out the window.

The moonlit scene illuminated the slow moving railroad cars on the two levels of tracks. The raised level had box cars moving one way. Moving in the opposite direction, the lower level contained “coal cars.” That’s what I thought they were. I eventually learned the cars were called “gondolas” and they carried coke, not coal.

I don’t know why I remember this particular view. Many years later, long after I had told this story repeatedly, I discovered an old photograph of this exact scene taken from the same window. It turns out the rail traffic was standard for the era. The coke cars traveled to and from the coke ovens and mills on South Buffalo Railways track. The Lehigh Valley regularly ferried box cars containing car parts to the Ford plant on its elevated tracks.

How do I know I was between one and two years old? First, we moved out of the apartment in Lackawanna to our new home on Abbott Parkway in Blasdell in August 1963, just after my third birthday. Second, there was always another person in my memories—my brother Kenny.

He was in the living room as we waited for our mother to return. (Our poor father seemed a bit on edge with his two young sons, as if he was worried he’d have to do something he wasn’t quite sure how to do.)

He was in the stroller my mother pushed. (I tried to sit in the lower basket in the back. That didn’t work, and I preferred to walk.)

He was at my grandparents’ apartment in the high chair when my uncles threatened to feed us both to the barking junkyard dog next door. (My grandmother yelled at them for this, then put us to bed in the back room.)

By the summer of 1963, with a new home, a new street, and new friends (kids close enough to our age lived next door).

But that wasn’t the only new thing. Unbeknownst to us, in October of that year, John Lennon and Paul McCartney penned “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Released in the UK a month later, it would have been the number one hit had it not been for The Beatles’ previous release—“She Loves You”—already occupying that spot. Within two weeks, though, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” would displace its predecessor.

I can’t recall popular music until The Beatles defined it. There are claims, however, I did “The Twist” before I turned one. In fact, there’s video evidence of it, but I don’t remember it.

On the other hand, almost immediately upon the band’s first release (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”) in January 1964, Kenny and I took to the tune. I remember that. My three-year-old self sang it as “I want to hold YOU hand.”

When we visited our grandparents, we rifled through their record collection, eager to find my teeny-bopper aunt’s Beatles albums. We couldn’t play them—didn’t know how to—but we liked to look at the picture and identify each Beatle. It was a strange way for two elementary school brothers to bond.

Mom had an AM radio in the kitchen. Back then, all popular AM stations played Top 40. We’d either listen to WKBW or WGR. They had news, sports, and weather. And rock & roll. Kenny and I would perk up whenever a Beatles song came on.

What we couldn’t understand was how The Beatles so quickly traveled from one station to the other. Yeah, we were smart enough to know there weren’t miniature Beatles playing inside our radio. Of course, we did believe they actually played live at the radio station; hence, the perceived perplexing travel logistics.

We grew up with The Beatles. The Early Beatles. The movie Beatles (Hard Days’ Night and Help!). The Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles. And The Late Beatles.

We joined the school bus stop arguments about who was the favorite Beatle. We laughed at those who thought The Monkees were better (or even real).

One time, when visiting our cousin’s house, she furtively asked in a whisper, “Chris, Kenny, come to my room but don’t tell your mother.” She then played “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” as if it were some contraband song. Kenny and I looked at each other and said, “What’s the big deal? We hear this song on the radio all the time.”

When we walked the area streets on a paper drive for Boy Scouts with our next-door neighbor, we collected all sorts of paper products. One item included a Life Magazine that was a “best of the 60s” issue. It had a black cover, a montage of public figures from the “Decade of Tumult and Change.” Prominent among those were The Beatles (the early years version).

Kenny & I wanted to keep it, but our neighbor was older, and he was an actual Boy Scout (we were just Cub Scouts), so he had first dibs. He grabbed the mag. (I’ve since bought the issue for my collection.)

The Beatles broke up in 1970. We thought they did it just to get on a magazine cover and would soon be back together.

That wasn’t the only thing that broke up in 1970. Our family left Abbott Parkway for a new home in a new city. Blasdell, like The Beatles, became the past.

But the brotherhood remained. It proved stronger. Strong enough to begin a new enthusiasm for The Beatles (if not Blasdell). Kenny & I collected our allowance money to buy—guess what?

Nope. We used that money to buy baseball and football cards. We used those cards to trade for other cards. We sold those other cards. That brought in more money than our allowance. That was enough money to buy old Beatles albums.

And that’s what we did.

We tracked down every rumor that The Beatles would once again band together. I bought the Klaatu album. Kenny bought the books.We bought every re-release. My first CD gift to Kenny was a Beatles album. Not Abbey Road like I had hoped because at the time it was only available in a Japanese format. It was Tony Sheridan and The Beatles.

For his wedding I helped him splice together a Lennon song (“Grow Old With Me”) with a McCartney song (“Pipes of Peace”). Would we have had the technology then that we have today. All we could do was record one song on a cassette and play the other on the record. Between the two, we determined the best place for the splice to occur. Of course, between us and the wedding videographer, something got lost in transition, and the end product was less than what we imagined.

But we knew what it should have sounded like. And it was a perfect blend.

And maybe that’s all that mattered.

It’s fitting, then, that on this day, November 2, 2023, what is likely the final original Beatles single is to be released. Called “Now and Then,” it features recordings of the two dead Beatles with overlays from the two surviving Beatles.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that November 2 is Kenny’s birthday? He would have been 62.

Maybe I should go to Blasdell to listen to it.

What A Whirlwind Week It Was

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Adrenaline does amazing things. It can give you a sense of superhuman strength. It can push you to accomplish things you can only dream of. It can keep you awake and alert until the job is done.

How long can an adrenaline rush last?

That’s a tricky question. The length depends on what triggers the initial rush. It might be 10-15 minutes. It might be an hour or two. It might be a day.

And what happens when you experience a series of adrenaline rushes?

OK, I’m going to stop right there. I’m not a doctor and an “Adrenaline Rush” clearly has Continue Reading “What A Whirlwind Week It Was”

Life (With Strings Attached)

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Sitting in the balcony at the First Presbyterian Church on North Main Street in Honeoye Falls, I couldn’t help but wonder. It was Ray Milne’s funeral service. He was an amazing man. Long ago, during my term of public service, he offered sound and wise advice. He was a man many could look to as a community role model. I only wish I could accomplish half of what he did.

But that’s not what I was wondering about. The setting itself took me back. When I first moved back to Mendon in the late 1980s, I joined many civic groups, hoping to discover what I could offer my adopted hometown. Several of those groups convened in the meeting rooms of the church.

That was a time long ago. I started thinking about all the people I knew back then. Some of them were in that church celebrating Ray’s life. Most of them were celebrating with Ray.

The solemn but sweet music coming from the organ helped place me in the mood to Continue Reading “Life (With Strings Attached)”

The Eclipse That Changed History

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As you read this, assuming the post office delivers the paper on time, a partial eclipse of the sun looms. This isn’t the big one. That’s coming on Monday, April 8, 2024. It’s a total eclipse of the sun that begins roughly at 3:18 PM and lasts for almost 4 minutes. The center line of that eclipse goes through Batavia, so that’s about as close as you can get.

Assuming it’s not cloudy.

The eclipse I’m talking about now is a partial eclipse of the sun. This is an annular eclipse. That’s the one where the moon doesn’t quite cover the entire sun. It leaves a bright ring. Pretty impressive looking. Pretty scary looking. It’s scheduled to happen on Saturday, October 14 right around 1:13 PM as a partial eclipse.

Assuming it’s not cloudy.

But let’s go back to the scary part for a moment. In history, cultures that didn’t understand Continue Reading “The Eclipse That Changed History”

The Day Lafayette Touched Mendon

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His full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette. For short, he’s called the Marquis de La Fayette. If that doesn’t speak “wealth,” then what doesn’t? At least in his native France.

In traditionally egalitarian America, we know him simply as “Lafayette.” Coming from a family with a strong military tradition, he came to the New World in 1777 at the age of 19. Seeing the American Revolution as a noble cause, he joined the patriots and was immediately commissioned as a major general.

The title reflected more a sign of respect than of actual duty, for he was given no troops to command. Lafayette understood in America, one isn’t born to status, one must earn it.

And earn it, he did. He received his red badge of courage at the Battle of Brandywine. There, though wounded, he led an orderly retreat. His brave actions in the Battle of Rhode Island Continue Reading “The Day Lafayette Touched Mendon”

Where Does The Term ‘Fallen Flags’ Come From?

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Are you a fan of The Big Bang Theory? Do you remember Sheldon Cooper’s hilarious “Fun With Flags” podcast? It’s a comedically inane spoof of those mindless YouTube shows. It’s all about vexillology.

You say you have never heard of the term?

Vexillology, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “the study of flags.” It comes from the Latin word vexillum, which translates to drape or flag. Vexillum itself derives from the Latin velum, meaning “sail.” At some point in the 1950s, someone attached “ology” to vexillum and—voilà!—vexillology.

It’s not clear where and when the word was first used. A 1968 UPI article that ran in several papers, quotes Nathaniel Abelson, then head of the United Nations’ library map department. Abelson claimed the UN’s terminology unit invented the term, but Continue Reading “Where Does The Term ‘Fallen Flags’ Come From?”

Jack Kemp: All American

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A lot of people were much closer to Jack Kemp than I, but a lot more people did not know him as well as I did. Only a few remaining Americans can say what I can: “I was there at the beginning.”

Jack Kemp, who passed away in 2009, emerged on the national scene not in the political arena passing historic legislation, but on the gridiron field and into passing history. He was forged in a time when most Americans believed in and followed the Boy Scout Law. He played among those people, he lived among those people, and, eventually, he came to represent those people. I know. I was one of them.

Friends, conservatives, liberals, and countrymen, I write not to rebury Jack Kemp, but to Continue Reading “Jack Kemp: All American”

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