LaGRANGE — Former Gov. Roy Barnes recently spoke to a crowd of LaGrange College students about the importance of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Why is the Constitution so important and why do citizens abide by it, Barnes asked students during the Thursday event.
He contrasted the Constitution and way of life to that of Russia and its constitution.
“If you will read the constitution of the Soviet Union,” Barnes said. “It’s great on paper. It has all these protections to speech and assembly and the ability to be safe in your home, but they don’t pay any attention to it.”
The Bill of Rights is the restrictions placed on the government, he added.
“I often say the Bill of Rights are like the 10 Commandments for government,” he said. “You shall not take my property without paying for it. You shall not convict me without fair hearing.”
Barnes said one of the most important aspects of the Constitution is freedom of speech.
“Thou (the government) shall not make me be quiet,” he said. “… If I say that you’re sorry, you can’t lock me up for it. I’m entitled to speak without censorship from you. Even if it’s wrong and inflammatory, I’m entitled to say what I want to.
“… You shall not cross my threshold into my home without my permission. … You shall not make decisions about my life for me, because I have the right to control my privacy. And I have the right to make wrong decisions. I have the right to really screw up. And you, as Big Brother, do not have the right to tell me that I’m about to screw up.”
Barnes went on to say that this right has been controversial, especially in areas like abortion.
He summed up his most important point with one general statement: “Government, leave thee alone. Interfere in my life only to the minimum that is necessary to keep us free. Even if I make wrong decisions, government, you do not have the right to supplant your thoughts and decisions for mine.”
Barnes acknowledged that this sounds easy, but is hard to carry out.
“Because we — as Americans, we don’t want to think. We want somebody else to think for us. Now, we say we don’t, but being an active citizen is work. It requires diligence and intelligence and involvement. And many times we don’t want to give that effort to it,” he said.
Barnes gave his views on how people can protect their freedoms.
“We have to support the practice of the Constitution as much as the words,” he said. “Do we practice the Constitution, or do we just repeat the words of the Constitution? … We have a duty to be informed as to what the Constitution really means, and sometimes it’s things we don’t agree with.”
Barnes also said that citizens need to be involved in the active protection of the Constitution.
“If you’re not involved in the active protection of the Constitution, you will lose the benefits that exist,” Barnes said. “You have the duty to speak out, and you have the duty to be politically involved to make sure that your voice is heard.”
Barnes then gave a modified quote from Edmond Burke: “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men — and women (he added) — to do nothing.”
“And, unfortunately, that’s what we have in the nation today,” Barnes said. “It’s the reason we’re so polarized. It’s the reason we can’t get anybody that we like to run for higher office. … It’s because good men and women do nothing and sit by.”
The biggest problem in Georgia — and the nation — is lack of leadership, Barnes said.
Barnes also cautioned “reckless rhetoric” like that of George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech that he said caused the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the death of four girls in Sept. 15, 1963.
Barnes was the 80th governor of Georgia, serving from 1999 to 2003. He is currently a lawyer at a private firm.
James Morton is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2154. Follow him on Twitter at jmorton_LDN.