At some point in his budding career as a poet, I’d like to hear Allan Monga recite “The New Colossus.”

Never heard of it?

Think again.

Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet in 1883 to raise money for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty now stands. Cast for posterity on a bronze plaque affixed to the statue’s base in 1903, the poem includes the timeless lines:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Monga, even at the tender age of 19, knows of such things. He arrived here alone in 2017, applied for political asylum and set about getting an education at Deering High School in Portland, where he’s currently enrolled as a junior.

He also happens to be good – no, make that great – at reciting poetry. So much so that Monga will proudly represent Maine this week at the Poetry Out Loud national championship in Washington, D.C.

He has a lot of people to thank for that – teachers, coaches and others who have helped him polish his raw talent all the way to a first-place finish last month in Maine’s statewide Poetry Out Loud competition.

But Monga also owes a big thank-you to U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock, who on Friday ruled that the National Endowment for the Arts, which oversees the annual Poetry Out Loud contest, missed the boat in its attempt to prevent Monga from taking his rightful place in the national limelight.

The court case stemmed from an NEA rule that limits the poetry competition to “U.S. citizens or permanent residents with a valid tax identification or Social Security number.”

Monga, who is here legally as he awaits disposition of his asylum request, has a Social Security number along with an employment authorization card allowing him to work here through early 2020.

But because Monga is not yet a permanent resident, which he hopes to someday become, the NEA fought mightily to keep him off the stage this week. A rule is a rule, right?

Wrong. Not when the rule impinges on the constitutional rights of an individual – yes, including an asylum seeker – for no legitimate reason whatsoever.

In arguing against Monga’s eligibility, the NEA clutched at every straw it could find.

It claimed that by allowing someone like Monga to compete, it would run afoul of federal law and, gasp, so rankle the powers that be in Congress that the NEA’s federal funding might be jeopardized.

But Woodcock found nothing to support such a claim, ruling “there is no congressional enactment that requires (the NEA) to impose these citizenship or permanent resident requirements to the (Poetry Out Loud) competition.”

In other words, nobody directed the NEA to create the rule. It simply did so to avoid ruffling political feathers.

The NEA maintained that Monga was not being deprived of his constitutionally guaranteed access to public education because the Poetry Out Loud national finals fall far beyond the realm of regular classroom activities.

Except … they don’t.

In reality, the entire Poetry Out Loud program could not be more rooted in the classroom. As Woodcock noted, a teacher guide produced by the NEA “provides detailed guidance about how teachers can integrate the program into their lesson plans” and how they can use it to satisfy various learning standards.

What’s more, the judge noted, the NEA boasted more than once in its court filings that it is committed to “cultural diversity” and “reducing barriers to cultural participation” in its programming.

Mused Woodcock, “It would seem that the participation of Mr. Monga, a talented young man raised in Zambia, in the national finals … actually advances these priorities.”

Speaking of Monga, the NEA went so far as to assert that any injury he suffered from the contest rules was “self-inflicted” because he knew all along that he was ineligible for both the state and national finals. (The Maine Arts Commission, which oversees the Poetry Out Loud competition here, allowed Monga to participate despite the national rule.)

Countered Woodcock, “there is no evidence … that Mr. Monga caused himself a self-inflicted harm merely by participating in this competition.”

I’ll take that one step further: Monga did not proclaim himself the statewide winner. The Maine contest judges did.

Throughout this drama, some have argued that however talented Monga may be, however inspiring his passion for the spoken word, his crown was awarded in violation of a standing rule and therefore he must be declared ineligible.

But as another poet, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “Any fool can make a rule. And any fool will mind it.”

Meaning rules – especially those that tread on equal protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – should never be deemed absolute simply because they are rules. Before they can be used to bludgeon an individual’s rights, they must achieve some overriding public interest, some greater good.

Put another way, if a rule says you can’t do something, it must be sufficiently based on law or logic to withstand the simple question: “Why not?”

That is where the NEA’s barrier ultimately collapsed under its own weight: The organization doesn’t want people like Monga reaching for its brass ring, but it cannot explain how society suffers by letting him do so.

Truth be told, Allan Monga enriches all of us when he steps up to the microphone and recites, with captivating fervor, “In the Desert” by Stephen Crane or “The Song of the Smoke” by W.E.B. Du Bois.

This, after all, is a young man who only last summer found himself looking for a path forward from the Preble Street Teen Shelter in Portland.

A young man who, in his declaration to the court, said simply: “I have fallen in love with Poetry Out Loud and it’s my heart’s desire to perform.”

Now, thanks in no small part to the good souls at the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum – who represented Monga for free and even took up a collection to cover his travel expenses – this quintessentially American journey continues.

So, bon voyage, Allan. Your audience awaits.

Breathe free.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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