What Counts as “Political” Speech?

For a couple of years now I have been participating in naturalization ceremonies as a representative of the bar association of the state where I work as a lawyer.  If you’re not familiar, naturalization ceremonies are where people become citizens.  It is a formal legal proceeding, presided over by a federal judge.

At each ceremony, a representative of both of our U.S. Senators and our Congressperson speaks.  In addition, a representative of the bar association speaks, and I have volunteered to perform that service several times, including the last two ceremonies which were held on the Fourth of July.

Unlike the other eleven ceremonies during the year, which take place in a federal courthouse, the July ceremony takes place in an outdoor amphitheater at a local park.  It is always scheduled to coincide with the Fourth of July celebrations.  In addition to the usual speakers, there is a “keynote speaker”. The last two years, this has been a law professor whose Jewish family immigrated to the U.S. during the Holocaust.

In the past, my speeches at these ceremonies have been pretty unremarkable, although I at the Fourth of July ceremony last year, I did respond to some of the terrible things President Trump has said about undocumented immigrants (without mentioning Trump).

This year, however, I felt it was necessary to say more.  Just a few days earlier, thousands of people around the country gathered to protest Trump’s immigration policy, specifically the separation of families at the Mexican border.  Sixty thousand people gathered in nearby Chicago.  I was among a smaller group of about 300 people who protested outside the federal building, just a few miles from where the naturalization ceremony was to be held days later.

In my speech, I spoke about the incredible wait times for some people to become citizens (over 20 years for people from certain countries, including Mexico), the fact that immigrants (both documented and un-) are on average more law abiding than natural-born citizens, and some of the ways that both documented and undocumented immigrants suffer in this country, including abuse from racists and xenophobes.

I went on to say that one of the most cherished American traditions is the tradition of dissent and I gave some examples from history, from the American Revolution to the Battle for Seattle, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Black Lives Matter.  I suggested that dissent is a duty of all citizens, and I encouraged the newly naturalized citizens, as well as the citizens in the audience, to exercise their Constitutional rights to assemble and to speak out for the purpose of changing our unjust immigration laws. I even invited them to attend a protest which was happening at the nearby airport a couple days later, where undocumented immigrants are deported from on a weekly basis.

I stated that these issues transcend political party, as both major political parties have deported immigrants in massive numbers, enforced inhumane policies against undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, and turned away refugees of war, famine and genocide.

After my comments, the presiding judge spoke.  Among other things, he stated that one thing we could all agree on was “American exceptionalism”–the idea that America is unique with respect to its democratic government and the personal freedoms of its citizens–and he praised the recently deceased, Charles Krauthammer, a prominent conservative political pundit.

After the ceremony, more people approached to thank me for my comments than has ever happened at any other naturalization ceremony I have spoken at.  As I left the ceremony, one of the newly naturalized citizens even caught me to ask if she could have her picture taken with me.  It was a great experience and great way to spend the Fourth.

About a week later, I received a copy of a letter which the presiding judge had sent to the bar association, asking that I not be designated to speak at any future naturalization ceremonies.  The judge stated that my comments were inappropriate because I used the forum to express “personal political views.”  The judge went on in the letter to characterize undocumented immigrants in a way that reflected his own political views:  where I see this as a human rights issue, the judge saw it as a law and order issue.

I respect this judge, both personally and in his official capacity.  And I respect both his right to his political views and his right to decide who speaks at naturalization ceremonies he presides over. But this all raised an interesting question in my mind: What counts as “political” speech?

Were my comments political?  Were the comments of the keynote speaker, which were very sympathetic to refugees, political?  Were the comments of the judge about American exceptionalism political?

I think the answer to all of these questions is “yes”.

In fact, I think it’s impossible to speak at naturalization ceremony without being political.  The definition of “political” is “relating to the government or the public affairs of a country.”  According to this definition, even seemingly-benign expressions of patriotism on the Fourth of July are political.  They are not necessarily partisan, meaning they may not favor one political party over another, but they are still political.

So what made my comments seem inappropriate to the judge?

Well, for one thing, people tend to notice the political nature of speech more when they disagree with the speech.  In this case, the judge, who is a Reagan-appointee, apparently holds conservative political views (at least on the issue of immigration).  To him, his own statements may not have seemed political, while they did to me.  Concomitantly, my speech seemed (too) political to the judge, because he disagreed with what I said.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  Speech which advocates change is more likely to be labelled “political” than speech which supports the status quo.  What’s more, unqualified expressions of patriotism implicitly support the status quo.  Expressions of patriotism–of the kind which are common at Fourth of July celebrations–are not usually seen as being political for this reason.

Because I advocated for change in existing immigration policy, the political nature of my comments was obvious.  In contrast, the political nature of the judge’s comments about American exceptionalism was not as obvious, at least to some people (including the judge himself), because his comments implicitly supported the status quo.

Encouraging citizens to protest current immigration policy, as I did, was political.  But so was just about everything else going on the Fourth.  Waving American flags is a political act.  Saying the Pledge of Allegiance is a political act.  Urging listeners to fight against the current wave of bigotry and xenophobia by voting and protesting, as the keynote speaker did, is political speech.  And suggesting that America is unique among all other countries in terms of the freedom it affords its citizens is also political.  (It also happens to be inaccurate–but that’s a post for another day.)

The idea that a naturalization ceremony held on the Fourth of July is a politically neutral space is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  It is dangerous because it obscures the political nature of speech which reinforces the status quo, while at the same time silencing speech which advocates change.  I think we need to be wary anytime someone tries to silence speech by labeling it “political”.  We need to ask ourselves, if certain opinions are excluded from a certain space, what other opinions are being permitted?  And how is that choice being used to reinforce the political status quo?

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