Student marchers exercise fundamental freedoms

The students from three Medford high schools who walked away from their classes on Friday came in for some criticism on social media for demanding action in the wake of the latest school shooting that claimed 17 lives in Florida on Valentine's Day. I found their brief burst of activism encouraging.

One Facebook user, commenting on photos of the students posted by a local television station, suggested that they should go back to class, where they could learn about "all our forefathers that sacrificed so much so we all could share these rights including the First Amendment which they are just taking advantage of because of lack of knowledge."

It struck me that if those students were "taking advantage" of the First Amendment, that's just what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote it. Let's take a look at what it says:

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.

The First Amendment actually encompasses as many as six separate freedoms or protections. The students marching on Friday were exercising three of them — the right to free speech, the right to assemble peacefully and the right to petition government. Their "grievance," in this case, was feeling unsafe in school.

Far from demonstrating a "lack of knowledge," those students were carrying on a powerful tradition of standing up and speaking out on issues of personal concern, of holding government accountable for its actions or lack thereof. This country was created by a revolution against colonial power, and those who wrote its founding documents included protections for ordinary citizens who demand action from their leaders.

Those freedoms don't come without cost — the students who marched on Friday did so knowing they would be marked absent from classes during that time and that they would be held responsible for work they missed. And merely demanding action is no guarantee any will be forthcoming.

I don't have the answer to the problem of mass shootings in this country. I wish I did. My intent here is not to debate what should or should not be done in response to the latest school massacre.

It is, rather, to acknowledge that the students marching in Medford, and in Florida and, on March 24, across this entire country, are demanding that we figure out what should be done, and do it. It would behoove us to listen.

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