Street Talk: The First Amendment, locked in a cage

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It was a prison inmate who first explained to me that the income tax may be unconstitutional and he urged me to look into it. I did, and damn if he didn’t have a point.

It was a prisoner who best described the burning thirst of addiction and another who explained the weird compulsions that drive men to lives of crime.

It was a prisoner, writing from the confines of a cell, who suggested that I look into corruption within the parking enforcement system of a nearby city. Another prisoner wrote about the dubious nature of the War on Drugs and compelled me to look into it. Damn if he didn’t have a point, too.

Prisoners are not stupid people. Not all of them, anyway. By their very nature, they question the world around them. They are driven to wail about injustices and God knows they have time for deep study.

You can’t blame the government, really, for wanting to shut them up.

On the other hand, you can blame the government. And you should.

The latest encroachment is coming right here in Maine.

“The Maine Department of Corrections is proposing changes to the rules that govern the way prisoners communicate with the outside world,” The Associated Press reported. “The list of proposed changes includes prohibiting prisoners from soliciting or communicating with a pen pal, publishing a byline or ‘acting as an agent of the news media.'”

Cut to the chase here and you’ll see where the bear does his business. Maine lawmakers would prefer that prison inmates be banned from writing letters to the editor; from writing guest columns in local newspapers; from engaging in back-and-forth correspondence with reporters — with anyone, really, in the free world.

Why do they want to stifle the First Amendment rights of prison inmates? I just told you. Prisoners have strong opinions and a lot of them are informed — more informed, I would wager, than the majority of free men.

Government do-gooders will tell you they only want to keep you safe. That’s what they ALWAYS tell you, whether they’re enacting tyrannical plans like the Patriot Act, or setting us all up for serfdom with noxious laws contained in the NDAA.

By and large, Big Brother would like us all to shut up. Since they can’t do that in one big swipe, they’ll do it incrementally, killing us with a thousand cuts instead of one big gash. Starting with prisoners is a clever way to go — prisoners are bad people, right? They gave away all their inalienable rights when they robbed that liquor store, stole that car or bought that bag of weed to treat depression.

Starting with prisoners is a clever stroke, because how many of us really care about what they do or what is done to them? Once the inmates are silenced, you move on. Maybe you move on to people with known addiction problems, those on disability, folks who have sought treatment for mental health issues. From there? Maybe it’s members of the tea party, gun owners, Libertarians.

Big Bro, like any predator, always goes after the weakest first, and who is weaker than a man or woman confined to a cage? The idea that “what you do to the least of me, you do to me” comes into play here. Let them strip away a very important right from these people, and they will keep rolling, until eventually they reach a group to which you belong.

But you won’t worry about it because you’re not a felon, nor is anyone you love. Live a decent life, you reason, and all of your rights will remain intact. Just you never mind that there are literally thousands upon thousands of federal laws that can land you in prison, a good bulk of which you have never heard. Never mind that it’s widely accepted that the average American will commit three felonies a day.

Not everybody who sits in prison is bad to the bone. And even if they were bad to the bone, their First Amendment right remains as important as it is for free men. Noam Chomsky said: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

It’s not just about prisoners and their crimes. It’s not just about a whiny reporter who would miss his prison pen pals. It’s about the First Amendment, and the fact that it has to be protected at all costs, even when you believe the latest assault has nothing to do with you or yours.

“If freedom of speech is taken away,” George Washington said on the matter, “then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

A spokesman for the Maine attorney general’s office declined to comment on the issue, on the grounds that the public comment period on the proposal is still open. I’m sure the lawmakers behind this would like me to shut up, too, but they can’t make me.

Not yet, anyway.

Mark LaFlamme regularly publishes bylines and acts as an agent of the news media. You can solicit him as a pen pal at [email protected]sunjournal.com.

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