OPINION: Courts Don’t Own the Constitution

There was once a city council in Connecticut whose members were being called very bad names. They were holding a hearing on rezoning on property in which several of them had a financial interest. Their response? They unanimously passed an ordinance banning citizens from calling them names.

Without any help from a judge, lawyer or constitutional scholar, the people and newspaper of the city promptly called them every name that could be repeated in polite society.

It was obvious elected council members — scoundrels and grifters all — had no authority to dictate how citizens described them. The ordinance died for lack of sanity, the zoning was reversed and several of the ne’er-do-wells left office.

These citizens knew a fundamental tenet of the nation’s founding is that you don’t have to put up with this kind of nonsense or wait for a judge to say it is nonsense. They pulled out their thesauruses and fired away. Americans are a free people with rights that can’t be legislated away and anyone who tries is in for a whoppin’, figuratively speaking.

The body of the U.S. Constitution was written deliberately to be simple, devoid of the legalese some founders were anxious to include. So confident were some of the Constitution’s clarity and brakes on power that they objected to the Bill of Rights, the amendments that delineate what government can’t do to a free people.

To imagine now that we, plain old citizens, can’t interpret what their words say is offensive.

Members of several elected bodies in the county have bridled at citizens objecting to health restrictions, masks for children and, of course, worried-about gun laws.

Did things get testy? Yes. Did some citizens violate the right to “peaceful” assembly? Maybe. Yelling is probably not peaceful in polite Trempealeau County.

But perhaps those elected officials who treasure their own voices should consider what it’s like to be a citizen standing all alone in front of them. Speakers are often relegated to two minutes, and many are not practiced at public addresses. Add in that the speakers are often grappling with highly charged issues, and it makes you want to yell just thinking about it.

The county is hardly alone in disgruntled citizens saying stop. In just one recent school board meeting, parents were arrested when, during the public comment portion of the agenda, a superintendent declared the meeting closed and ordered those reluctant to leave to be taken into custody. So now we need a legal degree to say knock it off?

Citizens aren’t the only non-expert interpreters of the Constitution. Lawmakers are always “interpreting” the constitution when writing laws, or at least we hope so. No one would propose legislation allowing warrantless searches, or saying women can’t vote, or forcing Arcadia residents to house the National Guard.

But when they err, and count on no one having the time and money to take the issue to court, can citizens be faulted for saying no?

Clearly some constitutional interpretations require expertise beyond that of farmers or newspaper reporters. Gun laws can fall into that category. It’s OK to quarrel how those limits should be set, and it’s OK for citizens to keep reminding lawmakers about the Second Amendment.

Law-abiding people will generally wait for a law, however offensive, to get changed by the courts. But those with the power to make laws need to quit imagining they can legislate as they wish while telling citizens they don’t know what their rights are. We do know.

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