Although the United States built itself around the promise of free speech, lately this fundamental American right has been in question.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spoke Feb. 7 from the Senate floor in strong opposition of Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general.
In 1986, Coretta Scott King wrote a letter voicing dissent against Jeff Sessions nomination for federal judgeship. Within this letter, the voice of an activist resonated with the voice of democracy. Warren read aloud from this letter, as is her right granted to her by the Constitution.
However, she was interrupted by presiding chair of the Senate who invoked Rule 19, which “forbids members from imputing to a colleague ‘any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.’”
Warren’s quote of King’s letter called Sessions a disgrace, due to his history of partisan and corrupt voting fraud prosecutions. King wrote that he “lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.” Yet, Warren was called out for impugning the character of Sessions.
In this letter, King said, “Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
Warren was silenced because she exercised her right to free speech. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell validated his decision by saying, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Warren did persist.
As a public servant who has fought for the people since day one of Trump’s autocratic tendencies and attacks on free speech he has carried out himself. From his Twitter sprees that admonish media outlets and cry that any source of news opposing him is “fake news,” or his team’s suggestions that “alternative facts” are permissible, it is clear that Trump wants an America that denies its right to free speech. The exception is if it is in favor of Trump and his dangerous policies and reprehensible rhetoric.
Warren’s silencing holds a mirror up to the double standard in politics. This dangerous, partisan undermining of our nation’s values calls for a reevaluation of what our democracy means.
Our constitutional rights are in question. Warren’s resistance, in her courage to voice a critique of Sessions, in her efforts to listen and advocate for the American people, exemplifies resilience.
As a female politician who faced this roadblock when she engaged in respectful debate without attacking his character, but rather a strong critique of a man whose record on civil rights cases proves controversial, she gained the support of the American public and her fellow colleagues on the Senate floor. She was followed by colleagues like Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Bernie Sanders and others, who read aloud from the same letter by Coretta King Scott and were not silenced in the way Warren wrongfully was.
Forbidden from taking part in floor debate over Sessions’ nomination, she took to her social media accounts and read a full account of the letter. Schumer and Sanders both noted that much more obvious and direct attacks on the very same floor were disregarded, those by male members of the Senate. Although the Democratic effort to allow Warren to keep speaking failed, she continues to speak out about the injustices within the government system and serve as a voice for the voiceless.
This double standard sparks debate about how in the 21st century, women can still be undermined in places of power when confronted by the authority of an arbitrary “rule” that takes precedence only when no truer words could be spoken. When one wants to deny the truth, they turn to rules that place no value on the context in which the words are spoken.
How many times have women in history fought for their right to speak our minds? History tells a story of women that never gave up; women like Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, who risked their lives so that women in the future would be able to tell their stories and be valued as equals.
Nevertheless, she persists.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a politician to be reckoned with. The irony of McConnell’s very own words being used against him to fuel the resistance against the notion that women can be silenced for the same words spoken decades ago reflects the nature of the state of our nation. Although our rights are being questioned, women in our government, workplaces, schools and homes, who live worlds apart from each other, will not be silenced by men for sharing the words of another strong woman.
Warren said, “they can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth,” with victory in her voice.
The truth of history, the truth of our own stories and the power we possess to tell our stories will never be silenced.