Rev. William Barber: How loud is free speech permitted to be?

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

[Editor’s note: Recently the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of the national civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, of his conviction for trespassing that resulted from a 2017 demonstration at the state Legislative Building. Today, in response to the court’s decision, Rev. Barber returned to the Legislative Building to offer the following remarks.]

Even though the highest court won’t hear us, we must continue to ask, What is the decibel level of free speech? And who determines whether the authorities are “disturbed” and protestors have to cease their protest in a public building?

On the day of our arrest, I asked the officer that question: How loud can we be? The basic answer was, “Somebody says it’s disturbing them.” The Constitution says freedom of speech and of the press are two of the great bulwarks of liberty and therefore shall never be restrained.

The officers that day said they did not know how loud free speech could be so we asked the court to decide. In essence, we were arrested because someone said our message bothered them. The answer to the question of what was allowable was never answered. None of the work of the General Assembly suffered that day, but the rights of the people did. The people have a right to assemble together, to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to “apply to the General Assembly for redress of grievances; but secret political societies are dangerous to the liberties of a free people and shall not be tolerated,” according to the Constitution.

Our aim was to remind our representatives that “all political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.

I wear arrest as a badge of honor.

If I’m charged and convicted for nonviolently standing with the least of these, it’s an honor.

I, along with other people of faith, are required by the love espoused in our faith to challenge the governments of nations to care for the least of these. The prophets of old told us to say, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey.” Even our Constitution calls us to remind those who hold political power that “beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate, and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.”

If I am charged with using my preaching voice to demand Medicaid expansion for thousands of poor and low-wage workers while Republican legislators block it, or if I’m charged for standing with others to speak out for poor and low wage people to make a minimum living of $15 an hour, I will always fight for the right to stand for voting rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and even the free speech rights of my opponents. I’m neither perfect nor always right, but as a gospel preacher and a bishop of the church, I’m supposed to preach in season and out of season. I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is good news to the poor.

The Bible tells me to raise my voice with others like a trumpet. If it means I’m charged and eventually have to spend time with others in prison, it’s a small price to pay. I cannot remain silent while God’s children suffer for no reason other than the poor choices of our elected officials.

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