Rethinking policy advocacy: what rights do we actually have?
Let 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:
- The right to bear arms
- The right to be “secure in your person…”, which is sometimes referred to as the right to privacy
- The right to a speedy trial & to confront your accuser
- The right of trial by jury in civil cases
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.
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.