Right to protest

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: May 16, 2003 - The Nation: Protest at the Peace Corps : Not a new conversation--just my 2 cents: Right to protest

By peter j smith on Sunday, July 06, 2003 - 12:38 pm: Edit Post

We are having a similar experience in Bolivia. Several volunteers including myself were denied permission to stage a Peaceful protest. Consequently we have written a petition to our state representatives/congress people to have our rights clarified. Hopefully the reasons listed below in the petition and forward will add to this discussion.

Petition to Clarify 1St Amendment Rights

PCV's Bolivia and elsewhere,
We are now, once again, in a time of peace as the war in Iraq has ended. I think it is safe to say that we are all glad that Sadaam Hussein is no longer terrorizing and killing his people. The war in Iraq, however, has brought to light some serious questions in regards to the 1st Amendment Rights of Peace Corps Volunteers. In particular, it is questionable whether we have rights to openly express political opinions, for example in regards to the war as well as current US Government policies. The purpose of this petition is thus to first clarify what our 1st Amendment rights are as PCV's in regards to political expression. We will then act accordingly based on your input and the input of our representatives in Washington as to what will be the next course of action.
You may ask why this is an important issue as we are no longer officially at war. The point is that it doesn't matter whether you were for or against the war in Iraq or whether you define yourself as a Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Independent, liberal, conservative, anarchist, etc.; we as US Citizens have the right to express our opinions regarding US Government policy. There will inevitably be times in the future when PCV's will want to express their political opinions, perhaps in public, in terms of US policy. It will thus be helpful if our rights of political expression are clearly defined. From our discussion with our Country Director here in Bolivia, we feel that the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook does not clearly define our rights to political expression and there is too much room for interpretation of what is written.
By putting our petition forward, we also wish to help create a more informed Peace Corps candidate. It may turn out that our rights to political expression are legally restricted- as they are within the State Department and US Embassy. Some employees and staff of these two departments willingly sign a document giving up their right to political expression. We feel that having to give up certain 1st Amendment Rights, such as freedom of political expression, is something that future PC candidates will want to consider as part of their decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Please read the following petition and if you are in agreement please sign and forward a copy to Shannon Duffy at dreamerduffy2@hotmail.com and/or Peter J. Smith at pjsmith4@hotmail.com as well as to your State Representatives and/or Senators. For information in regards to contacting your reps please go to the following website http://www.visi.com/juan/congress or other directories listed on the internet. We are also considering contacting the American press with our petition at an appropriate stage in this process and we would appreciate your input on this matter.
Please make necessary changes to the following form letter to personalize the petition to your state Representative and/or Senator. For example, change Date to current date and address your letter;Dear State Representative Bernie Sanders; rather than Dear State Representative and/or Senator. Other words in italics should be changed to reflect your personal situation.
If you have any other questions or comments please feel free to contact Pete Smith or Shannon Duffy in Monteagudo or at our email addresses listed above.

Thanks for your support.
Pete and Shannon

------------------------------------------------- Date, 2003

Dear State Representative and/or Senator,

I would first like to take a moment to thank you for your diligent work as my State Representative and/or Senator. I hope that you continue to be responsive to the opinions, requests and needs of your constituents, especially during these hard and troubling times.

I am currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to exchange cultures with the diverse people in this country. Overall, it continues to be a challenging, yet positive life-changing experience. I have no doubts that my two years serving in Bolivia are helping to break down the walls of ignorance that separate people and allow room for hatred and violence.

Although my experience in Bolivia is positive, certain issues arose during the time of war with Iraq concerning my 1st Amendment Rights as a U.S. citizen. As one of your constituents, I am requesting your advice and help to determine whether my rights as a U.S. citizen are being adequately protected while I serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer outside of the U.S. I have been informed that each Volunteer has the right to contact his/her representatives concerning this matter.

The problem at hand revolves around interpreting my 1st Amendment Rights as presented in the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook, (1999). As it states in the handbook under Political Expression:

"As a Volunteer, you are not required to represent official U.S. foreign policies, nor are you required to avoid discussing U.S. policies with host country nationals. Generally speaking, you may express views on or discuss issues relating to the U.S. or other countries in the same manner you may in the U.S., except that you must comply with the laws of the host country, and when expressing yourself, you should not leave the impression that you are speaking on behalf of the Peace Corps or U.S. Government."(68)

One way one might express views on or discuss issues relating to the U.S. or other countries in the same manner [as] in the U.S. may include a public display of personal political opinions. Furthermore, one might be willing to take measures to "not leave the impression that [they are] speaking on behalf of the Peace Corps or U.S. Government." If these steps are taken, does one then have the right to publicly express individual political views concerning US Policy while residing in a foreign country?

I am aware that as an employee of the Department of State and the U.S. Embassy that one willingly signs a document giving up his/her right to express personal political views and opinions. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I did not sign such a statement.

I am also aware of the risks involved with public political expression as a U.S. citizen living in a foreign country. The Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook appropriately states:

"some policies or actions of the U.S. or other country, however, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, may relate to political or controversial issues in the host country. Public statements or actions by Volunteers overseas that relate to such issues could create doubts and misunderstandings as to Peace Corps basic purposes within host countries could damage Peace Corps programs and impair the effectiveness of the Peace Corps and Volunteers in the host country and elsewhere." (68-69)

I realize that there would be obstacles associated with one being granted the right to publicly voice personal opinions. Personally, I would be willing to work with Peace Corps staff in Bolivia to find a way to act responsibly with this in mind.

Mr./Mrs. Representative/Senator I ask once again for your help and guidance in clarifying this matter. Please look into this issue as I feel that my 1st Amendment rights as a U.S. citizen and Peace Corps volunteer, at the very least, are not adequately defined. Thank you for your support concerning this matter.

Peace Corps Bolivia

By kimallen on Wednesday, July 09, 2003 - 6:44 pm: Edit Post

Pardon me for sounding patronizing but I work for the government and as a government employee I am not allowed to express beliefs during office time and I in no way feel my First Amendment Rights are being infringed upon. There is something called "appropriateness". There is a time and place for everything. Just as it is not appropriate for me to work on union issues during office time it is not appropriate for me to transmit my political beliefs during office time. So as long as what I am doing does not effect my work I can attend protests and circulate petitions until the cows come home. The issue with being a PCV is that office time is not well defined and you are a guest in another country. I still do not understand why you are writing the letter. Do you want PCVs to have to sign a statement such as State Department staff?

Kim Allen, Nepal 88-90

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