1-13-15 – Actions Still Speak Louder Than Words

by  Senator Joe Benning

When I was in sixth grade our teacher invited a lawyer to give us an explanation of the proper role of government.  As sixth graders, my colleagues and I really couldn’t have cared less about the subject.  We were too busy dealing with hormonal changes, the realization that our parents weren’t necessarily perfect, and the struggle to understand how we would fit into the world.

But over four decades later I can still see that lawyer standing in front of our classroom.  He had his arms fully extended horizontally and was drawing imaginary circles in the air with his index fingers.  We students awkwardly suppressed giggles as he paced the room.

And then he spoke.  He said: “In America, I’m free to do this all day long.  You may not like it, you may think I’m being silly, but it is my right to do this.  It is my right and government will not interfere, unless and until this happens.  [At this point he reached down with one index finger down to touch the nose of a girl I had a crush on.]  At that point it is government’s job and responsibility to step in.”

His message instantly became crystal clear to a bunch of sixth graders:  we are free in this country to do what we please, unless and until we interfere with the right of another to do the same.  As teaching moments go it was, simply, brilliant!

I was reminded of that recently in a different classroom, specifically Vermont’s statehouse.  Legislators, numerous dignitaries and many Vermonters had gathered to hear the Governor’s inaugural address.  Several hundred protesters had also assembled to express their frustration over the Governor’s decision not to go forward with a cause they promoted.

The protesters’ chants and songs successfully brought their cause to the forefront long before it was time for the Governor to speak.  But I became concerned when we senators were called out of our chamber and had to head single-file through a phalanx of police being squeezed towards us by the protesters behind them.  I’m quite sure the number of people far exceeded the fire safety code for the building and that was where I began to feel a line was being crossed.

Chapter II, Section 8 of Vermont’s Constitution demands that the statehouse remain open to all “who behave decently.”  Protests come with the territory.  But in this case the protesters’ words were eclipsed by the manner and timing of delivery.  They climbed the gallery walls to unfurl huge banners, chanted and sang so loudly it was hard to hear people who were trying to speak.  They said they would not cease until the Speaker scheduled a public hearing. They clearly intended to disrupt what we were trying to do.  The peaceful protest devolved into in-your-face bullying.  It was no longer “decent behavior.”

The sad part is that their actions have given cause to those who would prefer to see our open statehouse become a walled fortress.  I detest the thought, but it will be hard to argue against cameras, metal detectors and guards at every door now that the “decent behavior” line has been crossed.  Actions have consequences.  That is why this lawyer, when asked to speak to any class of students about the proper role of government, begins his presentation by extending his arms to draw imaginary circles in the air with his index fingers.

– Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) is the senate minority leader.

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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.

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