To stand as one, we must show respect to all

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

— First Amendment, United States Constitution


When Betty Head walked into our newsroom, she did not mince words.

“I’m very annoyed,” said the petite woman.

She had placed an election sign — for Hillary Clinton — in front of her Altamont home at 111 Lincoln Ave. one afternoon and woke the next morning to find it was gone.

“They’re scared she might win,” said Head. “It’s very juvenile…They can’t get into a debate in the open. They have to steal under the cover of night.”

It made her recall the 2000 campaign that Clinton had launched to be New York’s senator.  Head had posted signs all over Schoharie County, many of which were stolen in the dark of night, she said.

Election signs are expensive, she noted. So she came up with a plan to thwart the thieves. She put the signs out every dawn and then drove across the county every dusk to gather them up. She repeated this every day.

Head came to our newsroom because she wanted to warn others, she said. “They better watch their signs,” said Head. “I think they won’t stop with me.”

Head won’t be silenced. “I’m going to replace it with another sign,” she said. “Maybe I’ll wait on my porch for the villain,” she said. “If it happens and I’m on my sofa, I’ll get up and make a citizen’s arrest. It is a crime.”

Stealing election signs is, indeed, a crime, confirmed Altamont’s police chief, Todd Pucci. Stealing property with a value under $1,000 is petit larceny, a misdemeanor with penalties, under state law, of up to a year in jail or a fine, or a combination of the two.

Pucci also said the citizen’s arrest Head would like to employ is viable. “Absolutely, if she wanted to,” he said. “It’s up to the victim, the owner of the property, to sign the charge,” he said.

Pucci also said, “With elections, people should respect each other’s opinions.”

We agree wholeheartedly.

For us, it feels like a matter of free speech, of First Amendment rights.

Over the years, as classes of students or troops of Scouts have visited our newsroom to learn about the press, we have given each child a copy of our newspaper and, more importantly, a copy of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Most of them — and sometimes not even the parents who accompany them — cannot name the five freedoms named in the first of the Bill of Rights. This may be because those freedoms are like the air they breathe — essential but unnoticed.

As we talk, the kids realize that they worship, or not, with their families as their families have chosen. They watch television news at home or even read a newspaper as well as using the internet to find out about what interests them. Some of them remember signing a petition at their school, say, for a class they wanted to take.  Others have spoken at town boards about raising chickens or to school boards about why they don’t want their sports team cut or why reusable lunch trays are better for the environment. And on and on.

As we talk, they find it hard to imagine living in a place where they might not be allowed to do these things.

We heard this week from another Altamont resident, Doug Peterman, who lives at 165 Main Street. Like Head, he had placed a “Hillary” sign on his front lawn. He put it out last Friday, and the next morning it, too, was gone. But in its place was another sign, for Donald Trump.

Peterman, who describes himself as a “stay-at-home dad,” was angry when he first saw the sign — blue and white with just the word “Trump.”

“It is such a nasty, nasty election,” he said.

But he didn’t yank out the sign. Instead, he bought white electrical tape and changed the meaning of the sign. He added an ”s” to the word “Trump,” making it into a verb, and, above “Trumps,” he spelled out the word “Love.” Below it, he spelled out the word “Hate.”

Now the sign in the front yard of 165 Main Street reads “Love Trumps Hate.”

“I think people feel danger coming from his rhetoric,” Peterman said of Trump. “I don’t like the kind of violence Trump is inciting, the way he’s dividing people.”

Neither do we. Our country was founded on the principle that we stand as one. Congress appointed a committee on July 4, 1776 to design “a seal for the United States of America.” The motto on that seal, E pluribus unum, is the Latin meaning “Out of many, one.”

Although diversity is our great strength as a nation, it is not easy to coexist peacefully with those different than ourselves. It is not easy to be the only nation in the world created of and sustained by diverse peoples. It takes tolerance, and sincere effort to understand others.

That’s why we like the message Peterson improvised for his front lawn.

“The principle we should hold to,” said Peterson, “is: I respect what’s on your lawn even if I disagree.”

As we tell the schoolchildren who visit our newspaper, in America, we have the right to worship and speak and gather, and to report and petition — as we please; we also have the responsibility to allow others to do the same.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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