- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

Can you name the five freedoms in the First Amendment?

That tricky question was posed to a National Press Club audience last week during a panel discussion on “The State of the First Amendment” hosted by the Newseum and the First Amendment Center and shown on C-SPAN.

I proudly blurted the answer without reference: The freedoms are religion, speech, press, peaceable assembly and petition the government for redress of grievances. (I had better be able to rattle off the answer since I base the curriculum of my introduction to journalism class at Catholic University around the principal freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.)

All you have to do is look to New York City this week during the Republican National Convention to see a whole lot of folks exercising their First Amendment rights in and around Madison Square Garden.

Lost in the political protesting and posturing, however, will be a small contingent of residents from the capital of the free world. Why? They do not have the most precious and basic of democratic freedoms — the right to full voting representation.

Yes, D.C. residents can now vote for president of the United States. Yes, they can vote for local legislators, too. Yes, they have limited sway in the judiciary since local crimes are the jurisdiction of federal prosecutors. But D.C. residents have no vote whatsoever in either chamber of Congress.

Any congressional representative or senator, not elected by the overburdened taxpayers of the District, reserves the right to reject or accept all local legislation. Congress also can force any legislation it wishes upon D.C. taxpayers regardless of how those residents feel about it. Worst of all, Congress can determine how local taxpayer dollars are spent, and they can hold up dollars to the District by attaching unpopular, politically explosive riders to the city’s budget, which must be approved by these overlords.

This week you’re guaranteed to hear a whole lot of speeches about fighting for and preserving “American freedom and democracy,” except for the District of Columbia.

Amid all the “holleration, hateration in the danceree,” as singer Mary J. Blige characterizes foul folks, who act out at parties and ruin everybody’s fun, the American people will not hear a peep about the hypocrisy that permeates the lack of voting rights in the District during the GOP’s convention.

That’s because the 34-member local Republican delegation was not able to get the voting rights issue placed in the national Republican platform.

Last week, the national party rejected a bid to include language that supports congressional representation in the House only. Still, as a consolation prize, the platform endorses legal and budget autonomy for the District and the possibility of electing its own attorney general.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton yesterday issued a statement criticizing the Republican platform committee’s omission at the same time she thanked the local party delegation, especially D.C. Republican Party Chairman Betsy Werronen, for attempting to have the voting rights language included.

Mrs. Norton, who spoke on the enfranchisement issue during the Democratic convention in Boston in July, said the Republicans “missed an opportunity to reinforce their claim that their foreign policy, particularly the invasion of Iraq, is motivated by concern for democracy.”

“The claim to promote democracy worldwide loses its credibility when taxpaying residents, men and women who have served in all the nation’s wars, and other D.C. citizens are denied democratic rights at home,” she said.

Take note, getting voting rights for the District is a part of the Democratic platform. But don’t forget that while the Democrats were in control of Congress for years after the home rule charter was adopted in the 1970s, they didn’t remedy the D.C. disenfranchisement fiasco either.

In December, Tim Cooper, who heads up D.C.-based Worldright (an international human rights advocacy organization) finally succeeded in getting the International American Commission on Human Rights to rule on Case No. 11.204, Statehood Solidarity Committee v. the United States. It found the U.S. government in violation of internationally recognized human rights standards by denying the residents of the District representation in their own national legislature through duly elected representatives on general terms of equality.

I repeat: The birthright of all Americans is to be bestowed with the unalienable freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, which includes the right to vote — except if those Americans happen to call the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, home.

Sadly, I bet if the Americans freely protesting, picketing, parading and partying for one cause or another in New York this week were asked a tricky trivia question about voting rights in the nation’s capital, most would be at a loss to readily rattle off an appropriate answer.

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