Thursday, Feb. 14, I attended Jackson State student Corinthian Sanders' city council candidacy announcement on the JSU campus.
Sanders, a 20-year-old Jackson native, received permission to host his announcement from school administrators several days earlier. The fact that a students needs permission to hold such an announcement is a troubling indicator of where our Constitutional rights stand here in the United States. Apparently, the leaders at our institutions of higher learning believe they have the right to grant or deny students their 1st Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly.
Just for review the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution read as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Now, the 1st Amendment doesn't expressly prohibit university officials from creating policies that abridges the freedom of speech or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, but administrators at public universities are agents of the government. Do these agents have rights to abridge freedoms that even our own Congress doesn't?
I'm not picking on Jackson State here. When I attended Ole Miss, and I assume it is still the case, there were designated "free speech zones" where students could assemble and speak as freely as they pleased. The reasoning for these designations, the university said, was to prevent free speech where it might infringe on the educational process taking place in classrooms around campus.
Again, I must have overlooked the part of the 1st Amendment that states: "unless there's a good reason to abridge such rights, such as public education taking place nearby." Besides, isn't free speech a vital part of the educational process?
Unfortunately for Corinthian Sanders, the questionable treatment of his 1st Amendment rights didn't stop with needing permission.
Sanders had a podium and speakers set up in front of Ayers Hall when I arrived about noon Thursday. Shortly after, he began playing music through the speakers. The music continued for about 30 minutes, after which another City Council candidate, mayoral candidate Chokwe Lumumba and Sander's aunt spoke briefly.
Sanders took the podium about 12:45 for his announcement. Moments after he began to speak to the crowd of 15 to 20 people, three campus police officers stopped him. Campus patrolman Troy Nix, decked out in uniform and Dolce Gabbana sunglasses, pulled Sanders to the side, in the middle of his speech, and asked if he had permission to hold his announcement there.
Not only did Sanders have to get permission to express the most basic of human rights protected by our Constitution, he had to prove that he had that permission to a police officer, because the police officer was apparently unable to confirm the permission himself. Though campus police had more than 40 minutes to check on the status of Sanders' announcement between the time of the setup and the time Sanders began to speak on the microphone, they didn't act until Sanders began his speech. And he was the fourth person to speak on the microphone that afternoon.
As Nix and the other officers held up the ceremony, one supporter stood between five and 10 feet behind one of the officers who was questioning Sanders. The supporter was holding a Canon DSLR camera, standing still and quietly.
"Sir, I'm going to need you to back up," a female JSU Police officer said to him.
The young man took three or four steps back. "Is this far enough for you?" he asked.
"Yeah, that's fine," the officer said. I suppose the supporter was violating an unwritten law about being too close to a police officer in a public place when no crime has been committed.
Campus police then held up the ceremony for several minutes, while Sanders called a JSU administrator, who then came to the location and informed Nix and the other officers that Sanders had university permission.
Sanders stayed calm the entire time, though it was evident he was not happy that his official announcement had been interrupted in such a way.
"The police were just doing their job," Sanders said.
But were they? Is it law enforcement's job to prevent free speech, delay free assembly and enforce policies of government bodies that so blatantly infringe on the rights protected under the 1st Amendment?
It is easy to just shrug off such acts, especially when no one was physically injured or arrested. It is easy to say that the police were just doing their jobs. It is easy to say that administrators are just protecting the educational system.
It would have been easy to say all the same things when local governments enacted laws that separated the races and kept African Americans out of certain businesses and at the back of the bus. It would have been easy to say police were just doing their jobs when they stopped young black men for walking down a street on the white side of town or for drinking from a "whites only" water fountain.
It's easy to sit by and watch as our rights are slowly taken away one piece at a time.
In the 1960s, leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers didn't take the easy road. They didn't accept unConstitutional laws and unjust police action. They marched on Montgomery. They marched on Washington. They assembled hundreds of thousands and they spoke out against tyranny.
College students at Berkeley and Kent State stood up when governing bodies told them they couldn't assemble and express their views. When men armed with guns aimed them their way, they stood tall and fought back with words of defiance. Some of them even died for their rights.
Today, we are not so quick to challenge the unjust overreach of power. We complain on Facebook and message boards, but quickly respond with "yes sir" and "no ma'am" when police question us without just cause.
Infringements by governmental bodies and law enforcement officers on our Constitutional rights are never light. They are never minor. They are never something that we should shrug off and stay quiet about. No matter what any government representative may tell you, you have the right to speak your mind, to peacefully assemble and to worship whatever god you please.
Never, ever be afraid to stand up for those rights when they are threatened, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time. Because today's minor infringement on our rights will lead to their death tomorrow.