Rethinking policy advocacy: what rights do we actually have?

The constitution being editedLet me preface this post by saying that I’m not a lawyer, nor have I ever tried to be one. The following is a lay person’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, so any/all lawyers are more than welcome to jump in and add to/correct this interpretation.

On the plane back from the National Conference for Media Reform, I had a discussion with a labor attorney who also attended the conference and was from Seattle. Among other things, he told me the following:

The Constitution only grants one right: the right to bear arms [the 2nd amendment]. Everything else described in the document is essentially a limit on the government, not the granting of a particular right.

I thought that was really fascinating if it was true. If that is the case, then we really need take a hard look at how we talk about our “rights,” and about how we defend, ensure, and advocate for those “rights.” By telling me this, he almost made me want to quit my job and apply to law school as soon as I deplaned.

What are my real rights?

I looked at the Constitution and it’s amendments, and concluded that the best place to look for this info would be the Bill of Rights and the other amendments. My conclusion is that my lawyer friend was oversimplifying things a bit. My reading shows that we are actively granted the following rights:

What I mean by actively granted is that the Constitution actually explicitly says that people have this right. Notice what’s missing from the above list:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of peaceable assembly*
  • Voting rights*

The ones with a * are those “rights” that the Constitution acknowledges the existence of but does not explicitly grant

All of the time, you hear activists and advocates and the general public clamoring about their right to free speech. It looks to me like this actually is not a given right. What the Constitution appears to do is limit the Government’s ability to infringe upon one’s free speech, to infringe upon press freedom, etc. This is a fundamentally different notion that if taken to heart will not only change what we fight for but how we fight for it.

Rethinking Advocacy

Approaching things from this new perspective, we are now able to have more concrete conversations about what we want from our lawmakers. Instead of pushing for policies that continue to limit or further restrict the powers of local, state, and federal governments, we instead be advancing agendas that explicitly, directly, and unambiguously grant the rights we seek. Doing so will substantially lessen the amount of loopholes and wiggle-room present in many laws written and passed today at all levels of government.

An example: Freedom of the Press, Government transparency

People often say that as citizens, we have a “right” to know what our government is doing. I believe this as well, so let’s use this as an example of how we can use this newly proposed¬†approach to advocacy to change how we approach this issue.

I believe that this “right” to know about government operations is an extension of the notion of the freedom of the press, who’s vocation has at its core a mandate to report information to the people. (What better entity to report information about than the government, which literally affects everyone everywhere in the country? I digress…) Well, it appears that the press doesn’t have an explicit right to freedom, instead having only the benefit of not having any law “abridge their freedom.”

I propose that we argue for the rights of the press to monitor government activity to be explicitly outlined by the law. Instead of yelling about respecting “the freedom of the press,” we should instead clamor for policy that does the following:

  • Grants unlimited access to government officials (elected or appointed)¬†to members of the press
  • Prohibits any form of bribery, intimidation, or purposeful compromise of the ability of the press to report accurately on government activities
  • Requires that all elected officials produce publicly available, exhaustive monthly reports on the operations and actions of their offices
  • Requires that all government officials (elected or appointed) that receive any measure of public funding hold monthly press conferences on the operations and actions of their offices

These bullet points are just examples, which I’m sure are full of holes in and of themselves. However, they are an attempt to focus activism and advocacy efforts of specific policy goals that explicitly grant rights.

Why this is necessary

This will make our causes much easier to articulate and communicate to our constituents and to the government itself. In this day where the ability to simplify the complex is of immeasurable value, we need ways to fight the right fights and win the rights we want and deserve as citizens of this representative democracy.

Tactics matter. The choices we make, the words we use, the battles we engage in all matter. Let’s do it in the smartest, most strategic way we can.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “Rethinking policy advocacy: what rights do we actually have?”

  1. Brandon Q. says :

    Great post G,

    And it got me thinking how brilliant the framers were by not enumerating many rights to the American people along with the massive difficulty it takes to actually amend the constitution. On a deeper level think about how many more “rights” you are granted when you have money as opposed to people who don’t have money. (i.e. white male landowners being the only ones allowed to vote and to this day, not being able to vote without an address)

    I do see however, a need to further flesh out that idea of our right to know what the government is doing along with rethinking what rights we should have but don’t currently have.

    Stay up fam,

  2. steven says :

    This is a complex constitutional issue. The Bill of Rights is an amendment to the social contract of American society. It is made directly from the federal government to the citizens of America, not to the States, as other provisions of the Constitution are. Another wrinkle is that it is accepted that the Constitution and its Amendments are not considered to be exhaustive. For example, the right to privacy was read into the Constitution.

    With this being the case, it is difficult for legislators to create policy that “advance our rights” because often the courts say that they have gone to far or do not have that power-as they have the sole power to interpret the Constitution. For instance, the D.C. gun ban. As soon as Congress or a State passes a law, someone is there to challenge its validity. And also, what powers that are not explicitly enumerated to the Federal government is deemed to be the purview of the States, which is why each state is deciding its own gay marriage procedures.

    Therefore, in theory it is a good idea to act in accordance to prescribed ideals, but when dealing with the Constitution, it is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

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