EDITORIAL: The right to speak your mind – What are you doing with it?

by Jan 12, 2018OPINIONS





The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recognizes and respects the civil rights of its enrolled members. The Federal Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, 25 USC 1302, has formally by resolution been adopted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Therefore, the principles of free speech and free press, the rights of the people to assemble and petition for redress of grievances shall not be abridged.

Cherokee Code Section 75, Article 2, Subsection 52

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

- First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Freedom of speech. The privilege to speak your mind; to say your piece; to put in your two cents worth. Did I say privilege? We have a right; defined under Cherokee Code and in the federal constitution, to free speech. Does that mean we get to say anything, anytime we want, in any way we want?

Obviously not. I can’t broadcast misrepresentations, also known as lies, about someone without risking prosecution. I can’t dial up 911 and have emergency responders come out to a fake emergency without violating law against it. Yes, physically I could, but legally, I cannot. I cannot damage a building, a public display, or harm a fellow citizen and call it freedom of expression without consequence or penalty of law.

Indian tribes and other peoples have struggled with the concept of free speech since people began to have independent thought. Battles have been fought and blood have been shed over words. It is because we know the power of words and the expression of our thought through acts that, as civilizations, we make laws to prevent the control of them.

We, along with other indigenous nations, enjoy a “domestic dependent nation” status with the federal government. In attempting to further define our sovereignty, legal definitions (Wilkenson, “Indian Tribes as Sovereign Governments”, 1988) have been provided like “territorial sovereignty” which says that “tribal authority on Indian land is organic and is not granted by the states in which Indian lands are located” (WAG, “American Indian Law Deskbook”, 2004); “plenary power doctrine” stating that, “Congress has ultimate authority with regard to matters affecting Indian tribes” (Duthu, “American Indians and the Law”, 2008); and the “trust relationship” says that the federal government has a ‘duty to protect’ tribes (McCarthy, “The BIA and the Federal Trust Obligation to American Indians”, 2004).

We are as sovereign as federal law allows. Even if we did not have tribal regulation that provided for free speech protections, federal law would supersede that omission through the First Amendment of the Constitution.

You have a right to speak your mind. What are you doing with it? Some use the media to make their position known. The One Feather receives a few letters of comment. We also get significant response from our posts to the web and social media. Some choose to go to the government’s public meetings, like Tribal Council sessions. Since those are televised and streamed (and broadcast live), many use that opportunity to share their views.

Of course, as you may have heard in gangster movies and reality shows, you also have the right to remain silent. But, remaining silent on certain issues may speak more loudly than using words. Silence may sometimes be used as a statement. I fear that if we remain silent too long on too many issues, others will push through agendas that are not in keeping with the will of the people. Sometimes a few voices speaking loudly will be heard and cause law to be created for a majority that may quietly disagree.

An English statemen once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I know that the good versus evil is debatable as a separate issue and I am certainly not implying that just because someone is, in my opinion, extremely vocal about their opinion, that they are, by default, trying to do something negative. But, the premise is workable. If those who hold an opinion stay silent, those who yell their opinion long and loud will prevail and set the standard. Sometimes, that will be a good thing and then there will be those other times when most of our lives will be negatively affected by the actions, and voices, of a few.

I have concern when an individual comes before our governors and proports to speak for me and the rest of our people. You and I have a right to represent our individual views. You or I may be elected to represent a group’s views. It is doubtful that my views will exactly match your views on many things. No one should take liberties with another’s views. No one should try to press his or her position by implying a consensus of people that they may not have even spoken to.

I don’t know of many members of our Tribe that will not tell you what they think about an issue if you ask them. They may not stand in front of a group or write something for public print, but they will share their views with you one-on-one. Unless you are willing to ask everyone’s position, then it is impossible to represent an all-encompassing position and attribute it to the masses.

I hope that more of our people will engage when public issues arise. I hope that more of our people will alert us to issues that must be addressed when they impact the health of our communities. You may have a right to remain silent, but you have a duty to your people to speak out.