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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 11/30/18

Yes, You Have the Right to Talk Back to the Government--But It Could Get You Killed

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"The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state."-- Justice William J. Brennan, City of Houston v. Hill

What the architects of the police state want are submissive, compliant, cooperative, obedient, meek citizens who don't talk back, don't challenge government authority, don't speak out against government misconduct, and don't step out of line.

What the First Amendment protects--and a healthy constitutional republic requires--are citizens who routinely exercise their right to speak truth to power.

It's not an easy undertaking.

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Weaponized by police, prosecutors, courts and legislatures, "disorderly conduct" charges have become a convenient means by which to punish those individuals who refuse to be muzzled.

Cases like these have become all too common, typical of the bipolar nature of life in the American police state today: you may have distinct, protected rights on paper, but dare to exercise those rights and you put yourself at risk for fines, arrests, injuries, and even death.

This is the unfortunate price of freedom.

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Yet these are not new developments.

We have been circling this particular drain hole for some time now.

Almost 50 years ago, in fact, Lewis Colten was arrested outside Lexington, Kentucky, for questioning police and offering advice to his friend during a traffic stop.

Colten was one of 20 or so college students who had driven to the Blue Grass Airport to demonstrate against then-First Lady Pat Nixon. Upon leaving the airport, police stopped one of the cars in Colten's motorcade because it bore an expired, out-of-state license plate. Colten and the other drivers also pulled over to the side of the road.

Fearing violence on the part of the police, Colten exited his vehicle and stood nearby while police issued his friend, Mendez, a ticket and arranged to tow his car. Police repeatedly asked Colten to leave. At one point, a state trooper declared, "This is none of your affair... get back in your car and please move on and clear the road."

Insisting that he wanted to make a transportation arrangement for his friend Mendez and the occupants of the Mendez car, Colten failed to move away and was arrested for violating Kentucky's disorderly conduct statute.

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Colten subsequently challenged his arrest as a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the police.

Although the Court acknowledged that Colten was not trespassing or disobeying any traffic regulation himself, the majority affirmed that Colten "had no constitutional right to observe the issuance of a traffic ticket or to engage the issuing officer in conversation at that time."

The Supreme Court's bottom line: protecting police from inconvenience, annoyance or alarm is more important than protecting speech that, in the government's estimation, has "no social value."

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John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties has earned him numerous accolades and (more...)
 

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