by Schuyler VanValkenburg (Delegate for the 72nd District in Henrico County and a high school government teacher) and Sam Ulmschneider (a high school government teacher in the Richmond area)
Today, students across the country are walking out of their schools to advocate for gun safety legislation, thousands are expected in downtown Richmond alone. A great deal of our national political discussion in the past few weeks has been focused on these student activists who were galvanized by the tragedy in Parkland. Some of these young people, especially the highest profile leaders like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, have been hailed as a revitalizing force for our democracy by my fellow Democrats — but also attacked and rebuked as dangerous and inexperienced amateurs who need both classroom and practical experience by many conservatives. I think it is important to move beyond a focus on individual leaders and look at student engagement more broadly — and there we find a picture which is almost entirely positive. A large proportion of a generation is more engaged than ever before with public life and is making practical, effective policy demands on our system.
Though I absolutely support pushing forward on the translation of the March For Our Lives movement into policy, that’s not the issue which really moved me to write today. The push back against these student activists often takes the form of derision aimed at their very involvement in the arena of ideas. These attacks usually take the form of insistence that they be technical policy experts before they dare to voice opinions, or that the arena of politics ought to be a strictly age-and-education-level limited zone. Objections to their policies, or a desire to negotiate how their desires might become legislative reality are fine, but attacks on their civic involvement are offensive and impermissible.
Why differentiate these two things? Because I am a Madisonian, and that makes me proud of these student’s fierce engagement in the field of politics. Burt Neuborne writes in Madison’s Music: On Reading the First Amendment that the First Amendment has “three ascending levels of individual interaction with the community – free expression of an idea by an individual, mass dissemination of the idea by a free press, and collective action in support of the ideas by the people.” These students are embodying the purpose of the first amendment in the most direct way and engaging all three of these freedoms just as Madison might have hoped.
These students, though, are influencing law and politics, not creating policy directly, right? Well, yes, but that is not all. The Constitution itself is an embodiment of popular sovereignty, and the students of the March For Our Lives movement are not merely engaging in Madisonian speech activism, but slowly shifting the ground of the very Constitution by changing the popular mind.
The great Chief Justice John Marshall said, in his revolutionary McCulloch v Maryland opinion, that “we must never forget it is a Constitution we are expounding….to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.” The Constitution we live by is a long-lived collage of ideas – free speech, the rule of law, due process rights, bearing arms, and more — and these students are taking their role as citizens in continuing to build that collage for each generation to inherit.
The free speech, assembly, petition, and advocacy rights that these students are so passionately using as Madison intended are not even being met with honest argument. Instead, conservatives critique the students for not knowing Blackstone’s common law history, the writer of the Heller decision, the precise differences between a variety of weapon calibers, or simply for being too emotional or too young. These critiques amount to an attempt to shut down debate, not engage in it. John Stuart Mill, advocate of free speech and discourse, wrote about those who try to strangle debate: “Strange that they should…acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because…they are certain that it is certain.”
We don’t place these barriers to the legitimacy of someone’s viewpoint in front of adults – look at op-eds, blogs, and speeches the nation over which are accepted as legitimate views despite the speaker’s relative level of knowledge. What we, as a society, expect is for people to make arguments and convert others through their reason and compassion, and build a cohesive movement to pass that impetus on to policymakers. The Parkland students and their movement are doing just that – and in so doing, they are playing the same “Madison’s Music” that has guided our Constitutional dance from the protest of the Alien and Sedition acts to Obergefell v Hodges.
Keep at it, kids! As a delegate, as a teacher, as a parent I couldn’t be more impressed and proud. Don’t listen to the finger-waggers and barrier-builders, and keep engaging your peers and the rest of the public sphere.