The VBA, in conjunction with the Vermont Judiciary and Vermont Law School, organized the Fourth Annual Constitution Day, held at VLS in South Royalton last night. The packed house was rapt as the presenters brought life to this year’s theme of “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” After introductory remarks by VBA Board President, Gary Franklin, each judge, justice and professor attempted to tackle the great weight of the First Amendment in ten-minute segments!
Justice Harold Eaton started the presentation by laying the foundation of the First Amendment and its Vermont corollary. He remarked about the amendment’s humble origins, including the fact that many thought it to be unnecessary since the Constitution did not give government the right to curtail its people, generally. His presentation continued to build until he read the final draft of the First Amendment aloud.
Continuing on the origins theme, Judge Timothy Tomasi gave the audience a history lesson on the Seditions Act of 1918 and syndicalism laws, which were some of the first formal major encroachments into free speech. Judge Tomasi explained how the United States is unique in its protection of speech, sharing, for example how other countries ban flag burning. After going through the jurisprudence and thought-provoking quotes, he spoke about how the recurring theme was to let the people share ideas and be in charge of their discourse, rather than allow any governmental curtailing of that speech, ultimately choosing free speech over even inciteful speech in times of war.
After providing a warning and apologizing for swearing in the context of one of the cases she discussed, Justice Beth Robinson highlighted a couple of recent Vermont cases on the issue of free speech. She kept the audience on their toes and laughing as she discussed what must colloquially be known as the “you are not the f***ing NBA” case about an angry parent’s heated exchange with his daughter’s basketball coach. Going through the case law of what constitutes “fighting words,” a potential exception to the free speech doctrine, she explained the Court’s reasoning in overturning a conviction. Using this case and a revenge porn case, Justice Robinson well-illustrated the current state of free speech jurisprudence in Vermont.
Next up was retired Judge Dennis Pearson who was tasked with explaining the history and jurisprudence about free press in under 10 minutes. Rising to the challenge, Judge Pearson covered a considerable amount of weighty material in that time, highlighting some famous quotes and cases along the way. Though containing less imagery than the Vermont free speech cases, it was made clear that the importance of the freedom of press could not be overstated.
Professor Peter Teachout wrapped up the panel presentation by bringing the free speech and press doctrines into the modern digital age. Professor Teachout gave us a primer on the historical protection of the open forum for sharing ideas, noting that modern jurisprudence treats the internet itself as the most critical open public forum today. He encouraged listeners to ponder the impossible question of whether to regulate speech that incites violence in this era of Facebook meet-ups with the sole purpose of organizing violent activity. What was once the question of choosing the people over government, as Judge Tomasi so eloquently laid out, now becomes more complex when a third potential source of speech or press curtailment holds the power, mainly large corporate entities such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and the like.
Many attendees stayed to enjoy the refreshments, speak to the panelists and ponder the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Pocket constitutions were handed out by the VBA, who is extremely grateful to the incredible cast of panel presenters and to VLS for hosting the event. For us, Constitution Day is every day, so please reach out to the VBA if you’d like to present in any of your local schools or community groups about any aspect of the Constitution. We provide materials and pocket constitutions for your presentations! If you missed the event, don’t fret – VLS has the live stream which will be linked to our website soon, but please enjoy the pictures below in the meantime.