Sun opposes free speech

February 04, 2011

In its editorial "Police and fire fighters' misguided protest" (Feb. 2), The Sun calls on police and fire fighters to refrain from picketing the June 2011 U.S. Conference of Mayors convention because it could hurt city business.

The irony of that suggestion is impossible to overlook. The Baltimore Sun, once a grand institution of the free press in America, is urging the city's police and fire fighters to refrain from exercising their rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is inconceivable for a newspaper to suggest that any group should be silent. What will The Sun think of next in its bid to silence the city's first responders?

Thankfully, The Baltimore Sun does not get to decide how fire fighters or police communicate their concerns to the public. Picketing is not just an act of free expression, it is also a great way to let the public know where one stands on an issue. It is democracy in action. Just like a free press also represents democracy in action.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors would be a prime opportunity for fire fighters to communicate their concerns. U.S. mayors from coast to coast are grappling with the same difficult fiscal issues facing Baltimore. Many of them are working with their fire fighters to resolve these challenges while keeping their cities safe. Some, like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, unfortunately are using exaggerated claims of fiscal stress to tear up agreements they have negotiated with their fire fighters and police.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the City Council have unilaterally shredded agreements regarding pay and pension benefits with Baltimore's first responders. She has repeatedly rejected efforts by Baltimore fire fighters and fire officers to sit down and find common ground on important public safety issues.

This is wrong, and Baltimore fire fighters will be heard. The fire service is a calling. Fire fighters commit to this career of public service understanding the risks of injury and death. Part of that commitment includes the promise of compensation that fairly matches the dangers of their job.

Baltimore fire fighters will always honor their commitment to the people of Charm City, no matter how much their image is tarnished in the public square. But they will not stand silent while Mayor Rawlings-Blake shirks her duty to keep people safe.

Harold Schaitberger, Washington

The writer is general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

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