ISSN 2330-717X

Penn State’s First Amendment Victims – OpEd

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A  huge part  of the Penn State child abuse scandal and coverup is not Joe Paterno or Penn State, or even the abuse of children, as vile as what happened to them is. I refer to  the lack of basic freedom for workers in the United State of America to speak out.

On paper, we have one of the freest societies in the world. The First Amendment to the Constitution would appear to be pretty damned unequivocal, when it states:

“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.”

And yet there are all kinds of laws that abridge freedom of speech and the right peaceably to assemble, as well as the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We’ve all been witness lately to how municipal authorities, no doubt under pressure from the bankers and from the central government’s police and political authorities, have been “abridging,” with the aid of police wielding clubs, pepper spray and tear gas canisters, the supposed freedom of occupy movement activists to peaceably assemble.

What Penn State has done is expose an even bigger problem: the lack of freedom for workers to speak up or to petition for redress of grievances.

This  boy-sex scandal has exposed the bitter truth that we Americans have no freedom of speech once we punch in to a job or walk into a place of work.  And even when that place of work is a public university, where the management is really a part of the government of the state, we workers have no freedom to petition for redress.  For speaking out, or for orally or in writing seeking redress for a grievance,  employees , whether it is a teaching assistant, a professor or a janitor, risks losing their jobs.

Because of this lack of First Amendment freedom on the job, corruption, violation of laws and regulations, theft, discrimination, sexual abuse, favoritism and other problems run rampant in government, in universities, and in corporations.

People can criticize the janitors, and the teaching assistant at Penn State who reportedly stumbled upon rapes in progress of young boys in the Penn State gym, and can say they should have sprung to the rescue. But had any of them done this, when the alleged perpetrator was one of the most important coaches on a football team that is revered at, and that was generating millions of dollars in revenues for the university, those witnesses had to fear that they could lose their jobs–and probably would have.

Some people might claim that would not have been a consideration for them faced with such a situation, but we can’t all be heroes, and it is hard to fault a janitor who just landed his job, and who was supporting a family, for not being so heroic, or a teaching assistant (perhaps one of the most vulnerable and tenuous of jobs at a university) at the mercy of faculty members who can yank the position and its tuition benefits and pay on a whim, perhaps terminating a college career.

The same kind of dilemma confronts workers daily as they witness wrongdoing on the job.

Think how different the world might be today if lowly workers at Goldman Sachs or AIG or Lehman Brothers had had the protection of the First Amendment at those companies, and could have just picked up the phone and called a reporter or a prosecutor to tell about behavior like the shorting of derivatives that were simultaneously being touted to customers.

When you think about it, the position of American workers on the job is little better than that of serfs on a manorial estate.  The vaunted freedoms we boast of to the rest of the world are actually limited to those few hours in the morning between the time we are brushing our teeth and the time we walk in the office door or factory gate, and the few hours later in the evening between when we exit our place of employment and later pull up the covers to go to sleep (unless you count the time we spend dreaming at night). That and the weekend. And even then, it turns out that our freedom is severely limited: Woe to the employee who writes something critical about an employer on the internet on her or his own time and on a privately owned computer!

During the most important part of our lives — our waking, working hours — we have no First Amendment freedom at all.

It is time to put an end to this oppression!

Freedom of speech, assembly and the right to petition for redress of grievances must be a 24/7 thing. The consequences of curtailing these freedoms are too great, as the families of the victims of Penn State’s athletic department can attest.

Dave Lindorff

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective. Lindorff is a contributor to "Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion" (AK Press) and the author the author of “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press). He can be reached at [email protected]

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