It was just announced that the U.S. House candidates debate in Sheridan on Thursday has been opened to credentialed members of the press, but remains closed to the public. This is a half-step to try to quell the brouhaha that the handling of this event has caused.
The candidates involved have denied that closing the debate was their idea, and the sponsor, Wyoming PBS, refuses to discuss the decision, saying only that the debate was closed due to security concerns.
Regardless of who decided to bar the doors, the decision has raised the hackles of Wyomingites across the political spectrum. To say that this was a stupid move is to test the boundaries of understatement.
To infer that the decision was taken because of fear is only logical. But fear of the reaction of a crowd to a legitimate political debate is not, nor has ever been, a valid reason to exclude the public from our democratic processes.
In fact, fear is not a motive force in a pluralistic, democratic society. Rather, it is the engine of totalitarianism and autocracy. Yielding to political fear is a white flag of surrender. Shame on whoever is waving it over this debate in Sheridan.
Lets examine some facts. Is democracy often messy and uncomfortable? Affirmative. Are citizens of the United States, emboldened by our Constitution, often passionate and expressive about our freedoms? Again, affirmative.
Are American citizens always calm and rational when exercising our Constitutional rights? Are we always tolerant of opposing viewpoints and willing to give those views equal time in the public eye? Do we always behave ourselves as the ladies and gentlemen we’ve been taught to be?
But is that any reason to exclude us from the most important political debate this election cycle? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Consider this…our elections and our judicial process are two ways that we flex our democratic muscle. Both are part and parcel of our republic. And both stir elevated passions among us. But we don’t let fear of those passions interrupt our courtrooms, nor should we tolerate in our political debates.
You simply cannot – no matter how strongly you believe in your First Amendment right to free speech – stand up in a courtroom to spout off and rant. An officer of the court will immediately usher you out of the courtroom, and the presiding judge can cite you for contempt of court.
You’ll be invited to exercise free speech out on the sidewalk, but your childish tantrum will not be allowed to disrupt the Constitutionally-protected rights of other citizens to a fair trial. We citizens cherish our legal rights to good jurisprudence, and we won’t kowtow to anyone who tries to throw a monkeywrench in the works just to make a point.
If our courts feared the involvement of citizens in their proceedings, we would be left to trust our fate to anonymous star chambers, closed to the public, with secret discussions and decisions. Sort of like totalitarian regimes.
Why should we hold our electoral process, debates included, to a lesser standard? If we don’t succumb to fear in our courtrooms, why should we yield to it in our political debates?
If Wyoming PBS is incapable of sponsoring a PUBLIC debate because it fears the public, then it should yield to field to an entity that has the courage and the will to get the job done. If the Sheridan venue somehow can’t be made secure, then a venue needs to be found that can guarantee a safe and inclusive event.
Once a venue is found, security outside and inside should behave like officers of the court, and remove anyone in the audience who is disruptive to the debate. They can whine and moan about their First Amendment rights out in the parking lot with their pals. Jerks like that should not be permitted to sidetrack democracy for the rest of us.
The bottom line is that the candidates debate must be open to the press AND the citizenry, warts, sweat passions and all. Fear cannot be allowed to derail democracy. If the political courage and will exists, a means will be found to do it right.
This is the heavy lifting of democracy, and sometimes its hard work. But it needs doing.