Kate Cough covers energy and the environment at The Maine Monitor as a 2021 Reporter for America corps member and writes the weekly Climate Monitor newsletter covering all things energy and environment in Maine. She was previously a reporter for The Ellsworth American before becoming the inaugural digital media strategist for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.
Cough graduated with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Magna Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College.
Join the all-virtual Religious Freedom Mobile Institute, October 27-29. The theme will be “Reimagining Religious Freedom: Rights, Responsibilities, Respect.”
Religious freedom is essential to democracy, and we are at a pivotal point for freedom. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and the rise of both political violence and the emboldening of Christian nationalism and its various extremist elements, the Institute will look closely at the role of religion and our understanding of religious freedom in the context of a crumbling democracy and our hope for the future.
The rising threat of Christian nationalist driven political violence is central to our convening now, as is developing the resources for those who gather to quickly mobilize and take action.
This event will be bringing together an impressive group of experts on policy, organizing, law, religion, and the intersection of it all. Not only will you hear and learn from experts in the field, you also will receive the training you need to respond in your context as appropriate.
These public conversations will look at the politics of race and religious freedom by centering the experiences of marginalized communities when it comes to public education, voting rights, and environmental justice, including housing reform and security.
For those looking to disrupt, to make good trouble, or to create social change, remember this important principle: movement creates friction. And, perhaps no civil liberty creates more friction than freedom of speech.
It isn’t easy to present unconventional ideas when the world stubbornly prefers the status quo. Being a catalyst means you will upset someone’s norms. Even someone who shares the same values as you might disagree with your tactics. But here’s a universal law that is shared in the world of science, art, and activism: friction isn’t always a bad thing.
Friction can be a useful force to slow you down so that you exercise more caution. Whether you are slipping on ice or self-conceit, an opposing force can prevent a fall.
Friction can also be used to generate heat and electricity. You can get warmth if you rub your hands together quickly, in the same way that rough opposition can ignite support in important ways.
Friction can also be used to test the strength of something. In the same vein, it is through challenge that the resolve and effectiveness of your ideas will be forged.
Of course, friction isn’t always pleasant. But as a famous African proverb states, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”
Freedom of expression sometimes creates friction with other people, but it almost certainly guarantees that friction is present when it comes to challenging the government. And it is in the best interest of the government, as it is in the people whom it serves, to do everything possible to protect that right. After all, dissent is patriotic. And when it comes to protecting our liberties, it is important to distinguish the difference between what we need and what we like. We like to hear things that we already agree with—but we need to be able to engage in civil discourse without worrying about backlash from the government.
It’s often unfortunate that debates around the First Amendment are often framed in the most extreme of circumstances: the speech of political candidates, how people perceive the reach of social media, the display of confederate flags on state property, and so on. However, when political issues cater to and are framed by the outer edges, the deepest impact is felt by the middle. While people may fall across the spectrum, there’s a general consensus that racism and hateful ideas shouldn’t be tolerated, so it’s less of a conflict of values and more of a disagreement on the possible solutions. However, my own story is a cautionary tale against trading in civil liberties in exchange for comfort or convenience.
For years, I was engaged in a deep fight for the right to register the trademark for my Asian American band, The Slants. But therein lies the problem: The Trademark Office believed that our ethnicity provided the context to turn an ordinarily neutral word, “slant,” into a racial slur. Evidently, someone in the government didn’t like our use of the term. Neither our intention to reappropriate it nor our community’s support for it mattered—so much so that they dismissed any legitimate evidence that disagreed with their decision.
The government’s conviction on this was strong enough to justify suppressing the protected speech of multiple traditionally marginalized communities. They allowed the Trademark Office to use false claims in their legal brief without accountability. They were even allowed to justify the use of my racial and ethnic identity as the primary reason for connecting us with a racial slur. All because the government didn’t like what we had to say. We were creating too much friction.
The stubborn pushback from the Trademark Office wasn’t all that surprising – government offices often have the incentive to maintain the status quo, to reduce friction, so to speak. Eventually, that case landed before the United States Supreme Court, where we won unanimously because of the First Amendment. While the case eventually ended in victory, it took eight years of my life and cost countless resources—years I’ll never get back. No one should ever have to go through something like that – but that’s what happens when the power of the censor rests in the hands of the government.
We shouldn’t let the fear of the uncomfortable, such as someone using speech you disagree with, justify the suppression of rights for others—especially when the power to silence comes from the government. We have other options to show our distaste for ideas: to protest, to debate in the marketplace of ideas, and to vote with our dollars in the marketplace of economic exchange. These options are essential for democracy.
True equity isn’t achieved by sweeping government actions that negatively affect some communities more than others. The restriction of speech disproportionately hurts the marginalized and the powerless. There is power in allowing civil discourse to take place, as it is the primary means for overcoming fascism and oppression.
We should not discourage people from using wit, irony, or reappropriation to disarm the malicious. Unfortunately, the debate on free speech has almost always focused on those who abuse it. We know that the cost of free speech sometimes means having disagreeable speech. But the price that is paid for censorship is carried on the backs of the underprivileged.
An example of this is artistic expression, something that has continuously been understood as deserving the highest forms of protection under the First Amendment. Over the past few decades, prosecutors have been using violent, crime-laden lyrics of amateur rappers as confessions to crimes, threats of violence, evidence of gang affiliation, or revelations of criminal motive- and many judges and juries have gone along with it. The same approach has not been adopted with murder ballads (a popular form of country music), other genres of music, or other forms of artistic expression. It’s a perfect example of Orwell’s satire in play: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
We often take civil liberties and our First Amendment freedoms for granted, but they aren’t protected as they should be. A guarantee on paper is only as good as the people willing to ensure that those freedoms are made real. We need persistent awareness and troublemakers willing to fight these battles for other people to ensure our rights are available.
So as you create movement in your life, ask what you can do with your friction: Do you need to check your ego, heat things up, or test the strength of your resolve? Once you understand the kind of internal opposition that you’re facing, you’ll have better external options for moving forward. And, if you’re creating a movement for your community, ask yourself: are you the friction? How can you use and create more resistance to bring more justice for all?
By Simon Tam
Simon Tam is an author, musician, and activist. He is best known as the founder and bassist of the first all-Asian American rock band, The Slants. He helped expand civil liberties for minorities by winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for a landmark case, Matal v. Tam, in 2017. He also leads The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit that supports arts and activism projects for underrepresented communities. In 2019, he published his memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court, which was named “One of the Best Books on the Constitution of All Time” by BookAuthority and won an award for Best Autobiography/Memoir from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.
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Women’s Quarterly with Genie Gannett
We’re excited to share this front-page article for the winter 2022 edition of Women’s Quarterly of […]
On October 19 at 6:00 pm, join us for a round table discussion between local politicians! Constituents in Kennebec County will have the opportunity to engage with their local reps on the state and local levels from Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop, and Hallowell.
* FAM would like to thank the officials and candidates from both political parties who chose to respond to our invitation.
When: Wednesday, October 19, 2022
Where: First Amendment Museum, 184 State Street, Augusta, ME.
Time: 6:00 PM
Free to attend!
About the Participants
City Councilor, Augusta
Linda Conti is a member of the Maine Bar. She recently retired from a long and rewarding legal career at the Maine Attorney General’s Office. She is a resident of Augusta and currently is serving her eighth year on the Augusta City Council representing the residents of Ward 1.
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State Senator, Augusta
Bio Coming Soon
State Representative, Hallowell
Charlotte Warren is finishing her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives serving Hallowell, Manchester, and West Gardiner. She has served for six years as the house chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. She was recently appointed by the Speaker of the House to serve as the House Chair for Maine’s Commission to Examine the Reestablishment of Parole. Warren previously served on the Judiciary Committee and as the house chair of Maine's Mental Health Working Group. She served on the Hallowell City Council for 12 years, including four as mayor.
Warren is currently running for County Commissioner to represent Kennebec County District 2
State Representative, Gardiner
Thomas Harnett is serving his second term in the Maine State Legislature representing House District #83. He currently is the House Chair of the Judiciary Committee. Prior to his service in state government, he served as the Mayor of the City of Gardiner for six years and as a member of the City Council for one year. Harnett is a past President of the then Maine Bar Foundation and served on the Justice Action Group and the Committee on Volunteer Legal Services.
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Town Council Chair, Winthrop
Bio Coming Soon
Candidate for Maine State House District 60
William "Bill" Bridgeo retired in 2021 after serving for twenty-three years as Augusta's city manager. Prior to that he spent six years as city manager of Calais, Maine and eleven years as city manager of Canandaigua, New York. Bill is a longstanding adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine at Augusta and has served on the boards of the Maine Municipal Association, the Kennebec Valley YMCA, the Friends of the Blaine House, and the Maine Development Foundation. He was president of the board of the New York Municipal Management Association and a charter member of the Board of Regents of the International City Management Association University.
“Has Defending the Establishment Clause Become a Constitutional Violation?” Tom Waddell, president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, will discuss Maine and Religious Education during his onsite presentation at the First Amendment Museum.
His focus is on how the Supreme Court’s decision in Carson V. Makin all but requires Maine to fund Christian education. He will also explain how Maine’s bill LD1672, which requires private schools to follow public school guidelines, applies to private Christian schools.
When: Thursday, October 6, 2022
Where: First Amendment Museum, 184 State Street, Augusta, ME.
Time: 6:30 PM
With: Tom Waddell, Maine Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
Free to attend! No Tickets Required!
About Tom Waddell
Tom Waddell is the president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national constitutional watchdog organization based in Madison, Wisconsin with over 35,000 members. As president of the Maine Chapter – FFRF, Tom was the first “out of the closet” Atheist to give an invocation to the Maine House and Senate since the state was established in 1820.
“The grant funding enables the creation of non-partisan, civics-focused programming on the First Amendment’s five freedoms–religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition–for educators, students, and the general public,” Jamie O’Brien, chief development officer, said. “Maine teachers will have an opportunity to travel to Montpelier for onsite professional development, followed by opportunities to bring their classrooms to FAM to put that training to use.”
“This project is part of Montpelier’s Constitution Initiative, a 10-year venture that is dedicated to promoting civic engagement and constitutional learning.”
– Elizabeth Chew, Interim President and CEO of the Montpelier Foundation.
What does the grant entail?
Over a three-year cycle, the two museums will develop programming that inspires and empowers Americans to become more active, better informed and engaged citizens.
The grant funding enables the two institutions to:
facilitate four two-day seminars in Virginia for 100 teachers nationwide, including at least eight teachers from Maine;
develop and implement one-day workshops for 250 Maine students that will teach civics and inform students how to actively engage with their government; and
host six “how-to” workshops in Maine with local, civically-minded organizations for the general public.
Christian Cotz, chief executive officer, previously served as the director of visitor engagement at Montpelier before he moved to Maine to lead the First Amendment Museum in 2020. “As a past developer and participant in Montpelier’s onsite trainings, I know firsthand the level of excellence the staff brings to their work, as well as how meaningful participants find the experience,” Cotz said.
“The collaboration between my talented colleagues here at the First Amendment Museum and the team at Montpelier will yield phenomenal results. My hope is that many of Maine’s social studies, history and civics teachers will take advantage of this exciting continuing education opportunity.”
– Christian Cotz
Timeline of the project
The four professional development seminars for teachers will take place in the spring and early summer of 2023 at Montpelier. Each seminar will focus on a specific element of the First Amendment and will be led by relevant scholars and practitioners. The programs are offered free to teachers, and those looking to attend can receive travel support and continuing education credits through James Madison University. Planning sessions for the student workshops will immediately follow each two-day seminar and any teacher who wishes to participate longer will receive a small stipend.
“In the fall of 2023 and spring of 2024, the First Amendment Museum will offer student-focused workshops exploring the historical context of the First Amendment and encouraging students to engage with issues they find important,” Maxwell Nosbisch, manager of visitor experience, said. “These workshops are intended to reach at least 250 Maine students and are expected to happen in-person at the museum, which is an important learning opportunity for Maine students.”
Participating schools will have access to a transportation fund to assist them in covering bus transportation costs. In addition, in the Fall of 2023 and Spring of 2024, FAM will partner with other local, civically-minded organizations to hold six “how-to” workshops for the general public.
The state of civics education in the U.S.
In 2020, research revealed that only 56% of Americans could name all three branches of government, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Merely 9% can identify all five freedoms the First Amendment protects, according to a recent Freedom Forum study. Such a lack of civic knowledge is a challenge for students and adults and the democracy we all uphold. Over the past 50 years, civics education across the nation has taken the sidelines while projects to improve STEM education procured favor. Yet, data confirms that 94% of Americans deeply value the First Amendment, viewing it as “vital.” Another 84% said they were interested in learning more about the Constitution, according to The Montpelier Foundation. These upcoming teacher and student training programs will be designed to meet these needs.
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10 Tips to a civil conversation—and, actually change someone’s mind
10 Tips to a Civil Conversation—and, Actually Change Someone’s Mind Family get-togethers can be contentious, especially […]
Steve Minich: How well do you know the First Amendment? Well, according to the executive director of the new First Amendment Museum a recent poll shows that only 29% of Americans in that poll could name even one of the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Steve Minich: The museum is located right next to the Blaine House on state street Augusta in a very relevant setting.
Maxwell Nosbisch: So this is the historic 1911 Gannett House, which was the home of Guy and Anne Gannett.
Steve Minich: It’s so very fitting, they tell, that this house is now home to the First Amendment museum. Its creation, in fact, was first envisioned by family descendants to honor the Gannetts’ legacies, both so closely tied to the First Amendment rights.
Maxwell Nosbisch: You couldn’t pick a better first Amendment, two better first amendment people. Guy was a newspaper owner, a media guy. Anne Gannett was a suffragist.
Maxwell Nosbisch: So this is the old parlor, and right up here we got the First Amendment on the wall.
Steve Minich: Open for public tours, the narrative centers around the First Amendment’s forty-five words and its five guaranteed rights: freedom of religion, speech, the press, the right to assemble, and petition government.
Maxwell Nosbisch: Most museums, they cover tangible events or people that lived full lives and we’re talking about forty-five words.
Christian Cotz: We’re not about a bunch of old stuff behind glass. We’re a concept museum. We’re about inspiring people to get out and use their First Amendment freedoms in whatever way seems best to them.
Steve Minich: Christian Cotz is executive director.
Steve Minich: While the museum does include an array of displays and historical artifacts, their more so, he says, to encourage nonpartisan conversation. The more people talk about the First Amendment, the better handle they will have on the role it plays in their own lives.
Christian Cotz: It’s frightening how many people have no idea about what’s in the First Amendment.
Maxwell Nosbisch: If we can, you know, bring people a clearer understanding of the first amendment and what it enables then I would consider that a job well done no matter what political camp you come from.
Steve Minich: The museum remains a work in progress, renovating the building, installing more interpretive exhibits. Still, it’s not so much what visitors might see here, but what they grasp.
Christian Cotz: These five active freedoms that make up the first amendment are how we make our world a better place. And, it’s how we engage in our democracy as citizens.
The museum is located right next to the Blaine House in Augusta. It is open from 10 until 4, Monday through Saturday.
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Freedom of religion has trampled the rights of many American citizens, as well as those who were once enslaved
On January 16th, the same weekend as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and holiday, is National Religious Freedom Day. Officially proclaimed by U.S. President Clinton in 1993, this day highlights the diversity of religious belief, and reinforces the right to said expression freely.
The First Amendment Speaker Series presents Randal Maurice Jelks, professor, a documentary producer, and award-winning author. His latest book Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America (Chicago Review Press, Jan 11, 2022) evokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and contains twelve meditations on many of the public issues currently faced by citizens in the United States—economic inequality, freedom of assembly, police brutality, ongoing social class conflicts, and geopolitics.
Professor Jelks was an executive producer of the documentary I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled and he currently teaches American Studies, African Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. His writings have appeared in the Boston Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he also serves as co-editor of the academic journal American Studies.
Celebrate the 230th Anniversary of the Ratification of the Bill of Rights on December 15th
The five essential freedoms that empower the people to actively engage in the democratic process were not enumerated in the original Constitution drafted at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, but were added in 1791 when the Bill of Rights was ratified. Those five freedoms—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—are safeguarded and preserved in the First Amendment to the Constitution. In honor of the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment Museum hosts a virtual celebration on this historic day. Listen to the remarks of U.S. Senators, historians, lawyers, journalists, and advocates on the importance of the First Amendment in advancing democracy.
A Double-Edged Sword: Reflections on 230 Years of First Amendment History
Left to right: Speakers Dmitry Bam, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Peter Onuf
The First Amendment gives voice to those who might otherwise go unheard and empowers Americans to create change in our society and government. It can also be used to prevent change from happening, to silence minorities, and to keep privilege in position. Each action is seen by some part of the population as an effort to create a more perfect union. On the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, join FAM Board member Peter Onuf, celebrated law professor and historian Annette Gordon-Reed, and noted Constitutional law professor Dmitry Bam as they reflect on the ways we have used the First Amendment as a tool to both transform society and to secure the status quo.
Watch & Learn: Importance of the First Amendment: Remarks by U.S. Senators from Maine
Left to right: U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine)
The First Amendment Museum shares remarks from U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine) on the First Amendment’s importance in advancing democracy.
U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine)
U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine)
Watch & Learn: Our Freedoms at Work
Left to right: Jennifer Rooks, Chelsea Miller, and Destie Hohman Sprague
The First Amendment impacts the work of journalists, activists and lobbyists every day. Watch Maine Public’s Public Affairs Host and Producer of “Maine Calling” Jennifer Rooks, CEO and Co-founder of the Freedom March NYC Chelsea Miller, and Executive Director of the Maine Women’s Lobby Destie Hohman Sprague reflect on this moment.
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Art Review: A Future without Prisons, Manmade and Metaphorical
In Maine, statewide public project ‘Freedom & Captivity’ examines the end of incarceration, the effects of […]