The Augusta museum’s annual event culminated with a Suffrage March, celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

4th of July Parade
Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Visitors to the First Amendment Museum on Thursday got more than a good seat for the Fourth of July parade in Augusta, they got a sneak peek into the not-yet-open museum.

The First Amendment Museum, which is going through a “soft opening” before crucial construction projects begin, held their second annual Family Fun Day at the Gannett House at 184 State St. The museum, true to its name, has been described as a “concept museum” about the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects, freedoms of religion, speech and the press and the rights of people to peaceably assemble and petition their government.

The celebration also included light refreshments and outdoor games, as well as tours of the museum. The museum’s front lawn was decorated with American flag-colored lawn chairs while children did arts and crafts and adorned themselves with U.S.-themed temporary tattoos. A number of visitors set up their chairs for the parade before taking a walk through the museum.

After the tours and open house, a handful of attendees and museum officials joined Augusta’s parade holding signs and wearing sashes encouraging women to vote to re-enact a suffrage march.

Co-founder Terry Gannett Hopkins said the women’s suffrage movement is tied to the first amendment because women petitioned their government. She said the women’s suffrage movement began in the 1840s.  The suffrage movement resulted in the 19th Amendment, which was passed in 1919, but not ratified by every state until 1920. It prohibits state and federal governments from denying the right to vote to citizens of the U.S. on the basis of sex. Maine was the 19th state to ratify the amendment on Nov. 5, 1919.

Museum Director and co-founder Genie Gannett said the event’s turnout was better than last year’s but a few people pulled out of the march due to weather, which hovered around 90 degrees for most of the day.

Exhibits in the museum may seem like the home’s natural decor, but have powerful symbolism. During a tour, Gannett motioned to a dining room table and explained that the table is where people most often practice their First Amendment rights. She also hearkened back to suffragettes who didn’t think it was “lady-like” to hold signs, so they would hold tea parties to bolster the movement.

Other exhibits explained in simple terms how countries with stricter limitations on speech go about spreading information. Genie Gannett opened up a drawer that appeared to be full of rice, but it also contained flash drives. She said shopkeepers in North Korea would keep stored information inside of rice and provide it to customers after they use a code word. A large Jenga game with a number of precarious blocks is used in a kid’s room to illustrate the risk of speaking out in a country with strict speech laws.

Gannett said the exhibits, which use relatable themes from everyday life, are designed to be “sticky,” or easily retained by visitors. She said, citing a Newseum poll, that 40% of Americans could not name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, so the museum exists for people to live and practice their freedoms.

“It’s about how you feel and we know that learning (should be) sticky,” she said. “If you want to remember and know, making and doing … solidifies that.”

Gannett said that some future exhibits could target school-aged children and attempt to clarify the differences between their normal freedoms and their freedoms in a school setting. She said the museum is “fiercely non-partisan.”

Steve Cushman, who attended the event with his five children, said his children enjoyed the hands-on exhibits explaining the freedoms and seeing the suffragette costumes. He said it was “absolutely” important to teach children about their First Amendment freedoms, but admitted the learning for more for them and he was more interested in the historical architecture inside the Gannett House, which was built in 1911.

Organizers said they will hold a suffrage march re-enactment in 2020 to commemorate the full ratification of the amendment.

This article was originally published in the Kennebec Journal by Sam Shepard.

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The event at the First Amendment Museum at the Gannett House included discussions of political, student and online speech.

Participants at Free Speech Week
People chatting at the museum. Photo credit Joe Phelan.

As Free Speech Week gets underway across the nation, people came to Augusta on Tuesday evening for a special event to educate them about the various ways that the First Amendment has a bearing on their lives.

The group gathered at the First Amendment Museum at the Gannett House, where legal experts, professors, journalists and others led discussions on questions of free speech that can arise in three arenas: politics, education and the internet.

Under portraits of figures who have championed various manners of free speech — including whistleblower Edward Snowden, former U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and civil rights activist Barbara Johns — attendees were given written prompts with ideas to guide their discussions. They included numerous questions, such as whether social media platforms should monitor users’ activity or whether a school can punish a student who didn’t make an explicit threat but posted an online video depicting violence.

One organizer of the open house was the New England First Amendment Coalition, a Massachusetts-based organization that promotes transparency in government.

“We advocate for all aspects of the First Amendment,” said Justin Silverman, the group’s executive director, who drove the Augusta for the open house. “But ultimately underpinning everything we do, it’s about education and letting the public know why we’re working so hard to protect, in this case, your right to free speech, and the right to free speech of that person you don’t like and you don’t want to hear speaking.”

Another organizer was the group that runs the museum, the First Amendment Museum at the Gannett House. The yellow stucco building at 184 State St. used to be the home of newspaper publisher Guy P. Gannett. Now Gannett’s relatives are leading the effort to create a museum focused on free speech.

The museum hasn’t opened to the public fully yet, but organizers hope it will by 2020, said Rebecca Lazure, executive director of the First Amendment Museum at the Gannett House. Until then, the group plans to make it available for events periodically.

People who came to the museum on Tuesday night did so for various reasons.

One of them, Toni Richardson, is an educational technician in the Augusta School Department. Last year, she filed a complaint alleging that the school district discriminated against her when she told a fellow employee she would pray for him. The district eventually agreed to withdraw a directive that Richardson not make those statements and replace it with an affirmation that she can do so outside the hearing of students.

Richardson’s case now is highlighted in the exhibits that are being developed at the First Amendment Museum.

Another attendee, Keith Ludden, of Augusta, used to work as a journalist in his home state of Nebraska. Now he runs a nonprofit organization that produces oral histories and folklife research.

Ludden came to the open house, he said, to help affirm the protections of the press and political protest that are contained in the First Amendment.

He referred to President Donald Trump, who frequently berates the press and recently praised a Montana congressman who pleaded guilty to assaulting a newspaper reporter. He also mentioned the case of deceased Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On Tuesday, Turkey’s president accused Saudi officials of murdering Khashoggi following their assertion that he was killed accidentally during an altercation.

The First Amendment “is critical, especially now when we’ve got these vicious attacks on the media and the press” Ludden said. “It’s really, really critical that we defend the First Amendment and make people understand why the press is important and not the enemy.”

The Portland Media Center and Gorham radio station WMPG also organized the event.

Article originally written by Charles Eichacker for Central Maine.

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