- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

Jan. 18

Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, on MLK Day:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 86 this month if an assassin’s bullet hadn’t found its mark outside a downtown Memphis hotel in 1968.

He was only 39 years old at the time. Yet during his too-brief time on earth, he helped move it in some big ways.

(On Monday) Savannah and the rest of the nation (observed) the birthday of this great American, a man who devoted - and gave - his life to the human struggle for equality, dignity and opportunity. It’s a fight that continues. It’s one that all Americans must do their parts, as it’s the only way to reach the Promised Land that Dr. King mentioned in his last public address.

That means supporting education, which is a great equalizer as well as a stepladder to a better life.

It means standing for something and speaking out against injustice.

It means recognizing that people of all races, creeds and religion are in the fight for better lives together, and that you can accomplish more through cooperation than you can with division.

It means volunteering for worthy causes that make this community a better place.

It means being part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It means becoming more engaged in civic life, not tuning out.

It means registering to vote and actually voting - two acts that were once officially discouraged in this country, and still are in other countries.

It means rejecting violence that takes life and embracing virtues that enhance it.

The past 12 months have brought much painful soul-searching when it comes to equality and race in America. The shooting death of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, followed a the death of a black man who was choked on the streets of New York City by another white officer, opened old wounds that still haven’t healed.

Meanwhile, the recent release of the movie “Selma” - a major biopic that many consider an effective recreation of Dr. King’s nonviolent movement to achieve public support for civil rights - couldn’t come at a better time.

People who were born when Dr. King was killed are 47 years old today. This film helps bring him to life for younger people who know him only from books, speeches, recordings and old news footage.

In Savannah, this year’s MLK observance is the 36th … The theme is an excellent one: “His Dream: Inspiration for Freedom and Justice for All.”

And all must mean all. Not some. That’s a perfect message for today. And every day.

Online:

http://savannahnow.com

___

Jan. 18

The Times, Gainesville, Georgia, on right to free expression:

The idea of free speech embedded into the U.S. Constitution 225 years ago remains an elusive goal ever under attack and in need of a diligent defense. Even as we Americans often don’t fully grasp its scope and meaning, what we hold as a fundamental right isn’t always acknowledged everywhere.

We have seen this play out in recent unrelated events, each of which follow a thread to ponder: Free expression isn’t a given, and where it exists, its consequences can be sobering. And the way government interacts with this exchange is vital to preserving that liberty.

Two weeks ago, Islamic extremists attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people in retaliation for the publication’s caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. It was the latest violent act from zealots unwilling to accept beliefs outside of their own.

Thousands worldwide offered support for Charlie and all publications that take on sacred cows, though many still feel the magazine went beyond good taste in poking fun at others’ beliefs. The more advanced the society, the more willing it is to endure a wider range of ideas under the umbrella of freedom, even when those views may cross the line of decorum.

But unpopular ideas can carry risk. It’s up to those who express them to decide if they are worth the price. There remains a distinction in whether one can express something legally, and whether one should. The former is protected by law; the latter is up to our discretion. With all rights come the responsibility to use them wisely.

Pope Francis even weighed in on this with the view that ridiculing faith falls beyond the boundary of free expression. While we blanch at that notion, remember he’s a man of beliefs, not the law, so his domain is over what we “should” do and not what we “can.”

Those who defend the right to be offensive within the full gamut of free expression understand why “can” is of utmost importance. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law …” restricting our ability to gather, speak, write or believe without government interference.

Yet government can only shield us from the results of our free expression to a point. There’s no bubble of protection from all of the consequences it incurs.

An incident close to home shed light on a different aspect of the topic. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fired Police Chief Kelvin Cochran over a book the chief wrote that included Cochran’s ideas on homosexuality. Reed claims Cochran violated city rules for not following the proper procedures to approve his book. Cochran and his backers claim he is being discriminated against for his religious views.

Anyone is entitled to opine that Reed “shouldn’t” have fired Cochran, but as the boss, he certainly “can.” Employers can take such action if free speech is inconsistent with a company’s message or mission. If you stand in the middle of the office and espouse offensive views, you’ll likely be shown the door. You won’t be thrown in jail; the First Amendment protects your choice to speak, but it doesn’t promise you a job.

There are laws against workplace discrimination targeting skin color, gender or physical disability, factors beyond anyone’s control. But expression of beliefs is a choice. If you don’t like your employer stifling your views, you’re free to work elsewhere.

Cochran’s supporters are among those pushing for a bill in the legislature that would support religious freedom in the workplace. One of the ideas behind it may be the backlash over the Affordable Care Act mandate that companies must provide birth control prescription coverage even if it contradicts their faith.

Here is a case where the government may indeed be taking sides in the consequences of free speech. The ACA requirement already was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case last year. The laws created in reaction to it may not hold up, either, depending on what behaviors they address.

The bottom line here is that the First Amendment keeps the government from intervening on matters of faith or speech unless it endangers someone (yelling “fire!” in a crowd, for instance). And as long as those 45 words remain in effect, additional laws affirming the right to believe as we wish, at work or anywhere else, do not seem necessary.

It’s also worth noting free expression of faith in the workplace is a concept many may endorse when the beliefs match their own, but not as much when it involves someone else’s. We can’t have it both ways; if religious freedom doesn’t apply to all, no one is free.

And let’s add a historical example on the weekend we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King and his followers marched peacefully 50 years ago demanding equal rights, the response of many law enforcement officials (the government) was to attack them with beatings, fire hoses and dogs.

That response was a First Amendment violation, government representatives choosing sides in the free speech debate. In doing so, they resorted to violent oppression used by totalitarian regimes that imprison political dissidents and punish anyone who opposes those in power.

In that sense, the local leaders who sought to suppress marchers’ rights were no better than the despots from banana republics who don’t respect freedom of any kind, from speech on down the line. And they will do anything to silence it, often in the name of their god.

All these cases point out how freedom of expression is a complicated right that requires tolerance from all sides, and that often is lacking. And we’re reminded our blessed First Amendment, while it gives us the liberty to say, pray and gather as we wish, can’t always protect us from the consequences of those actions.

So the debate goes on, as it should. Let’s hope we gain a little more insight each time on the way to creating a nation and a world that fully honors the liberties we cherish.

Online:

http://www.gainesvilletimes.com

___

Jan. 21

The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle on citizenship tests:

New citizens are expected to know something about civics.

Should we expect less of natives?

Of course not; we should expect more.

Despite that fact, students and adults regularly fail at basic civics knowledge. If test scores aren’t enough to prove that - 71 percent of people in the general population failed a civics test a few years ago - just look at how ignorant folks are in those late-night comedy show “person on the street” interviews. It’s frightening.

So it’s encouraging and exciting that some folks are taking action to correct that.

Arizona just became the first state to require high-school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test on civics before graduation. Other states are sure to follow.

In fact, the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, which has set a goal of passing similar requirements in all 50 states, says 15 stage legislatures already are poised to do exactly that.

The move was such a no-brainer that the Grand Canyon State’s house and senate passed the requirement on just the fourth day of its session.

Civics, too, should be a no-brainer - at least by the time you leave high school. The math, for instance, is pretty straightforward: three branches of government, 535 members of Congress (435 House, 100 Senate), 10 constitutional amendments forming the Bill of Rights and so on.

Nor is the Arizona law draconian by any means: Students only need answer 60 of the 100 questions correctly to graduate. In most courses, that would be a near-failing grade!

Every state ought to do this and more.

Of course, that obligates the schools to adequately educate students in civics.

Remember what a fad it was in the 1990s for school systems to issue “warranties” to employers that students were properly educated in the basics?

Doesn’t the greatest country in history deserve as much?

Online:

http://chronicle.augusta.com

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