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Rights we've come to expect
The most basic principle of American democracy is the right to criticize government

By Mana Tahaie
November 24, 2003
The Iranian

My essay for a scholarship competition was published in iranian.com under the title, "Persian spirit". I thought this one, three years later, would interest you as well. The topic was "What Does the Future Hold for the First Amendment: Will Our Rights Survive?" It was for a free expression congress held by freedom of information Oklahoma.

In 1982, my parents immigrated to the US. They escaped Iran when a totalitarian government at war prohibited leaving, when terror wasn't a political buzzword but a perpetual state of being. My mother was six months pregnant and hid it behind a fur coat, lest she jeopardize their chances of obtaining a visa.

Their story is similar to many immigrant stories: tired of an oppressive government, in search of a better life, they came to the U.S. hoping to live the American Dream. Given that their only intention was to leave Iran, they could have gone to any number of countries -- and, considering the ubiquitous animosity toward Iranians in the U.S. at the time, anywhere else may have seemed better. But my parents didn't buy the anti-American hype they were being fed at home. They had faith in American democracy.

It was, in essence, the First Amendment that attracted them. Leaving a theocracy, they desired a place in which they could freely practice any religion -- or none at all. They wanted to be free from restrictions on their private lives, to live as they wished, and to speak freely. I grew up hearing stories of the 1979 revolution, how they had no rights in a government that claimed to be acting for their own good, and how the climate of oppression forced them to live in fear.

Recent Bush Administration policy is alarming in its attempts to weaken the First Amendment. The language used by supporters deliberately fosters an atmosphere of fear, to undermine people's rights. The Administration has taken advantage of the current political climate to quietly pass several laws -- namely, the Patriot Act and similar policies -- which threaten to strip Americans of their constitutional right to free speech.

In April I helped organize a peace rally on campus. Two weeks ago an organization I founded began campaigning to close the School of Americas. In both instances, people objected to my actions and dismissed my opinions as unpatriotic and un-American. The argument I've received countless times is, "If you don't like it here, why don't you leave?"

Yet the most basic principle of American democracy is the right to criticize government. The notion that voicing criticism is unpatriotic is itself unpatriotic, because it ignores the concept of free speech, one of the most fundamental principles upon which this country was founded.

Telling an immigrant or first generation American who disagrees with policy to "go home" forgets that foreigners, people who came here in search of freedom, founded this nation in order to guarantee their right to express dissent and unpopular opinions.

Despite all this adversity, there is a glimmer of hope: once people no longer feel that they are in imminent danger, they will see more clearly that they are being manipulated into giving up their constitutional rights. An educated, clear-thinking public will hold on dearly to the rights they've come to expect.

It is every citizen's responsibility to become aware of the government's agenda, and the media's responsibility to provide credible and accurate information, unprejudiced by popularity polls and administrative policy. Free expression is a self-perpetuating institution: the only way to maintain it is to exercise it, and the only way to guard it is to fight attempts to eliminate it.

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