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A First Amendment Thanksgiving

By Michael Smerconish

I was recently invited by a federal judge, the Honorable Gene Pratter, to speak at a naturalization ceremony. I've done a great deal of public speaking in my life, but never before new citizens. There I stood, before 54 individuals from 27 nations and joining our ranks in an ornate room paneled with California redwood.

I'd thought a lot about what to say, even solicited the advice of some radio listeners.

A common suggestion: Tell them how fortunate they are to be citizens. Another wanted me to thank them for playing by the rules in the face of the illegal immigration problem. One told me to encourage them to vote, and even invited me to brag about my personal streak of 26 years without missing an election.

A close friend suggested I tell my own family's immigration story, which involves my 100-year-old grandmother who came to Ellis Island with an infant in her arms in 1926. Perhaps the most innovative suggestion was that I greet them with Borat's favorite word, "Jagshemash!," then welcome them to the US of A.

I used them all, although the Borat line fell a little flat. But with an eye on Thanksgiving, I had a different message in mind.

I told them that as a boy growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I shared the dream of many other children in the United States. I wanted what I then believed to be the all-American job. And what was that? Well, to pitch for the Phillies, of course. Or any other big league team.

But, at 44, I'm starting to think that pitching for the Phils is not in the cards. And, as things turned out, I have ended up with the all-American job, and it has nothing to do with sports.

I'm a talk-show host. And not only do I offer my opinions on radio, I do it on TV and in print, too. I'm the modern equivalent of those who used to stand on a soapbox to make their views known. What makes mine the all-American job, I told the new citizens, is that I can speak my mind on matters of public concern without fear of recrimination. Too often, we Americans take that for granted.

I reminded them that this is a right guaranteed to us in the First Amendment to our Constitution - and I told them I've always drawn significance from its being the First Amendment:

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.

That's what gave me the right to be on the radio that very morning taking issue with the efforts of a local institution to sell a historically significant painting and permit it to leave our city.

It is also the underpinning that allowed me, in my last column, to criticize my political party. And it's the protection that enabled me to speak on national TV this week, and complain about our government's foreign policy.

I reminded them that there are many passionate arguments in the United States right now about the war in Iraq. I host many of them daily. But that's where the debate is held - in the open, via the airwaves, and among all who choose to participate.

And our deliberative process doesn't involve guns or knives, our representation doesn't dependent on a bloodline, or who has the most feared army.

We settle our scores with the ballot. Democracy is our means of settling scores.

Think about that, I told them, and you'll realize why I say that I have the all-American job - I offer opinions and try to win the wars of ideas. And although I get paid to offer my views, I told the new citizens that they are now entitled to the same rights of expression as I am, and I hope they will not sit silently.

Then I closed by offering them one such opinion. I told them that despite our differences, our problems and political issues of contention, we Americans are citizens of the greatest country ever created, at its most advanced stage of development.

This Thanksgiving, it's a message for citizens new and old.

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News and the author of Muzzled. He can be heard weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on 1210/AM in Philadelphia. Contact him via www.mastalk.com.

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