Monday, January 23, 2006

A New Hope

It's common for ACLU-PA staff to do presentations with groups of students, including high school students. What is not so common is for our staff to do presentations where the program for the evening includes 11 punk bands, but that is exactly what I did on Saturday night.

And it was great.

A youth center in suburban Harrisburg asked us to take part in their "Activist Night", an evening of music and preparation for some of the center's members to go to D.C. to protest the State of the Union speech on Jan 31. Since these young people would be traveling to Washington to exercise their right to free speech, it seemed appropriate to screen the Dissent episode of The Freedom Files, our new television program. Afterwards, we held a Q&A session.

I could not help but be impressed by the awareness of social issues and eagerness to learn more about our rights that this group exhibited. There were about 50-60 teens on hand, and, by and large, they gave me their attention throughout. They were very respectful, too.

When they asked questions about their rights, particularly at school, they weren't asking because they want to create websites to criticize their teachers or to protest the menu in the cafeteria. They were asking because they want to hand out pamphlets to protest war. They wanted to know how far they could go at school in opposing government policies. They wanted to know about not participating in the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem as a form of political speech.

When I talked about the Patriot Act, the NSA spying program, LGBT rights, and other issues, there were heads nodding in the audience. These young people know what's up.

I was in awe, and I say that not because the ACLU necessarily endorses these positions (for example, we take no position on war) but because these were teens so ready and willing to use their right to free speech.

Young people get rapped for being unaware and apathetic, but that was not my experience Saturday night. The next time you see a young person with noserings, dyed hair, or a leather jacket loaded with studs (or the next time you see any teen, for that matter), you might be looking at the next generation of civil libertarians.

Andy in the HBG


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