As Americans celebrate America’s 239th birthday Saturday, we should pause to thank those who defend and uphold our freedoms every day.
No, I don’t mean the armed forces. They certainly do their part — and their courage and service to the nation is unquestioned. But what about the unsung protectors of freedom? Like, for example, public defenders.
The right to counsel is a fundamental constitutional protection. For those who are arrested and can’t afford a lawyer — as we’ve all heard on countless episodes of “Law & Order’’ — “one will be appointed for you.” More often than not, the lawyer that Americans receive is an underpaid, understaffed defense attorney whose job it is to protect you from the awesome power of the state to take away your liberty. It doesn’t matter if one is guilty or innocent; the right to counsel is sacrosanct and so too is the responsibility of that lawyer to provide the best possible defense. None of this is meant to slight prosecutors, who have the duty of upholding the rule of law, or judges, whose job it is to ensure that the receipt of justice is swift, fair, and without prejudice. But when it comes to defending Americans’ most basic freedom from the state, it’s hard to think of a purer example than public defenders.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” So here are a few other freedom defenders some may agree with and some may not.
As long as abortion remains legal in this country (and a constitutionally protected right) and as long as abortion clinics and their staff need to be protected, then those who are ensuring that a woman has the right to make decisions about her reproductive health are courageous defenders of freedom.
One could also argue that journalists who put a spotlight on government also deserve special praise. Not only are they keeping the public informed about the doings of their elected leaders, but they are also maintaining the adversarial relationship that is at the heart of our First Amendment — free press protections.
Speaking of upholding our most civil liberties, how about a shout out for groups like the ACLU, whose entire modus operandi is to protect the most basic rights of all Americans. That means upholding freedom of speech (even if the speech is offensive), freedom of assembly (even if the group doing the assembling is odious), and freedom of religion (or as is often the case, freedom from the imposition of religion in public life).
Of course, activism in the defense of liberty comes in many forms, and in recent days we’ve had a great example: the LGBT activists who worked for more than two decades to ensure that the right to marriage was guaranteed for all citizens.
Defending freedom, however, doesn’t always mean defending against the power of the state. Sometimes it means being an agent of the state.
Like police officers — freedom from those who would do us harm seems kind of important. Election officials too — the ability to exercise one’s franchise is pretty fundamental. And then there are the social workers who protect children from abusive homes or women from domestic abusers. These may not necessarily be enumerated constitutional rights, but it sure feels a lot like freedom.
So whatever you’re doing on July Fourth, raise a glass to the lawyers, doctors, poll workers, cops, journalists, activists, and social workers. They’re doing their part to keep America free.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.