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Posted: October 11, 2012 7:30 p.m.

Losing our voices

It's right there in black and white in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ... ."

The founders of this fledgling country held freedom of speech second only to the freedom to practice the religion of one's choice.

Recently, I've had occasion to wonder if those who believe in and practice freedom of expression as a constitutionally-granted right are being drowned out in our state by well-funded forces who can't bear the sound of dissident voices and will brook no challenge to their own philosophies.

Take the case of State School Superintendent John Barge. He first declined to take a position on the proposed amendment passed by the legislature, being content, he said, to let voters make up their own minds. If passed, it would grant power to a state commission to authorize charter schools, removing authority from local boards of education and requiring local funds in support of private sector, for-profit schools run by out-of-state companies. The Newton County Board of Education will vote Oct. 16th on whether to renew the charter it granted in 2008 - under state law later found unconstitutional - to Challenge Charter Academy that receives $300,000 in local funds and $800,000 in state funds.

Back in August, Barge made a conscious and apparently conscience-driven decision to oppose the amendment, decrying the creation of a new state bureaucracy to take over decision-making now done locally. He said that the state average of seven new charter schools authorized each year would take $430 million out of public education funding. Instead, he wants to see full state funding for teacher pay and 180-day school years.

Barge's opposition to the amendment went up on the website of the State Board of Education. It would seem that voters who made Barge the state school superintendent have the right to know the man's professional opinion. But amendment proponents prevailed on State Attorney General Sam Olens to order the statement taken down. Olens opined that state taxpayer dollars could not be used to express opinions in a political campaign. Barge lost, but Governor Nathan Deal's support for the amendment remains on the Governor's website. Georgia Democrats have pointed out the obvious discrepancy, but so far nothing's changed.

Legal challenges also were lodged against the rights of local BOE's to put their opposition on local websites, but a Fulton County judge ruled Wednesday against efforts to keep the Fulton BOE from promoting its stance against the amendment on its website. The Newton County BOE passed a resolution opposing the amendment but it does not appear on its website.

Rome, GA, is home to a man named George Anderson, the most vigilant of political watchdogs whose dogged pursuit of possible ethics violations by Georgia officials is legendary and unrelenting. He filed complaints with the then-Georgia State Ethics Commission about 14 possible violations of campaign law by Deal's 2010 campaign. An ethics commission investigation actually found some 53 possible breaches of the law, some later dismissed due to vagaries in the law. Along the way, Deal waged war on the commission staff, and there were charges by some of collusion with the ethics board chair to have the case dropped. Ultimately, Deal paid $3,350 in fines for "technical" irregularities in campaign filings but was absolved of any major ethical breaches.

State law allows politicians to turn around and go after anyone filing complaints against them later deemed "frivolous." That's what the governor's attorney Randy Evans is doing. It is unspecified at this time what those fees might be ultimately. Common Cause Georgia executive director William Perry says the action will have a "chilling" effect on honest citizens who have the right to ask questions and raise issues. Many Anderson complaints over the years have been found valid, he added.

What the governor is doing is legal, but is it ethically the right thing to do? Legal and ethical don't necessarily mean the same thing. In my opinion, it is unseemly at best for the state's most powerful official to go on the attack against an ever vigilant lay observer just because he can.

It is all too easy to call Anderson a gadfly, but a few more George Andersons among our citizenry could do a lot to right the listing balance between power (read money) and the people. We the people lost a major battle against money and power when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that corporations had the same rights as individuals in the political arena. The power of we the people to determine the outcomes of elections is an ever-decreasing slice of the pie. Our own battle is with major corporations who choose the side least likely to impede their bottom line.

In Pakistan, the Taliban silenced - for a time, perhaps forever - the voice of a courageous schoolgirl with a bullet to her head. It doesn't take bullets in this country to drown out the opposition.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

 

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