Bristol Fourth of July Committee
Hands Tea Partiers a victory by banning the Constitution

How do you transform a group of right-wing, anti-government Tea Party activists into sympathetic victims? You couldn't do better than the BRISTOL FOURTH OF JULY COMMITTEE, in Rhode Island, whose members threw a Mach 10 nutty during the 2009 Independence Day parade because some of those marching Tea Partiers had the temerity to — gasp! — hand out copies of the US Constitution to spectators.

Afterward, according to the Providence Journal, Marina Peterson, treasurer of the Rhode Island Tea Party, said she was told "not to waste the stamp to send in an application" by Jim Tavares, chairman of the float committee, who said he had personally confiscated copies of the offending document. Peterson added that Tavares had reduced her to tears.

Now, before you get all up in arms at the notion that the Constitution could be considered contraband, you should understand that the Tea Partiers were, according to the committee, endangering public safety. Parade chairwoman Judith Squires cited the case of a nine-year-old boy who was killed in Florida when he became entangled in the wheel of a passing float. Hmmmm. Give us a month and we might figure out what the connection is supposed to be. As far as we can tell, the only risk involved in handing out copies of the Constitution is paper cuts.

Perhaps realizing they had a public-relations disaster on their hands, committee members later apologized and invited the Tea Partiers to apply again. But the committee didn't change its mind about leafleting. Instead, the committee, with the help of the Tea Partiers, reached a face-saving solution. The Tea Partiers said the folks who were handing out the Constitution had nothing to do with the official float, and had showed up on their own. (Never mind that they were wearing yellow DON'T TREAD ON ME shirts identical to those worn by the people on the float.) So the committee chose to accept that explanation and put the matter to rest.

At press time, according to Squires, now general chairwoman of the committee, the Tea Partiers were scheduled to take part in the 2010 parade. Added Colleen Conley, president of the Rhode Island Tea Party: "We stated our mutual agreement that we look forward to a pleasant non-controversial participation in the parade this year."

Squires, Tavares, and company may not have intended to censor the Constitution. But the idea that passing out pieces of paper represents some sort of threat to public safety is simply too bizarre to take seriously. The committee's actions made for potent Fourth of July symbolism, giving the likes of Glenn Beck a chance to poke fun at those crazy liberals.

In its zeal to protect the public from even the slightest, most theoretical hazard, the Bristol Fourth of July Committee put itself in the position of accidentally censoring the very symbol of our liberty. And they handed the Tea Partiers an unintended — and undeserved — public victory.

Phoenix contributor Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. He can be reached at

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