William Baer didn't set out to become a criminal when he attended a May 5, 2014 Gilford School Board meeting in the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire.
Rather, as a Christian, he was there to protest the middle school's mandated reading of Jodie Picault's "Nineteen Minutes," a book he feels is pornographic and inappropriate reading for his 14 year old daughter.
While, in the videoed account, Mr. Baer spoke passionately, he certainly was not, by any stretch of the imagination, aggressive, abusive or threatening. But, as is often the case with exuberant residents at school board or community meetings across the nation, Mr. Baer spoke longer than the allotted time, which, at this meeting was two minutes.
This sort of slight violation of rules is a routine and everyday occurrence at meetings everywhere. So common, in fact, that even presidential candidates need to be constantly reminded of, and reprimanded for, overrunning their allotted time during virtually every televised debate.
But William Baer wasn't reminded or reprimanded for inadvertently passing the two minute mark; instead he was arrested and charged with "Disorderly Conduct."
Most of us would like to believe this is an isolated incident and the law isn't being abused or used in a way that, to any reasonable mind, it was never intended to be enforced. This is true to a certain extent, but in many places around the US, disorderly conduct has become the default charge when no crime has actually been committed.
This was the case during the Ferguson, Missouri protests following the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown.
Arrests for the vaguely written disorderly conduct charge exploded in Missouri and were seemingly levied against any protestor the police didn't like. The small town of Ferguson managed to record almost as many disorderly conduct arrests during the protest as the entire state prosecuted the entire previous year.
So widely and severely enforced were Missouri disorderly conduct laws that one man, Scott Kampas, was charged for stepping one foot into the street while filming police.
The most widely known case of disorderly conduct, of course, is the infamous July 2009 arrest of highly regarded Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates. His "disorderly" act was being a black man attempting to enter his own home, in a neighborhood arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley apparently deemed too suspiciously high end for minority residents.
Although the charge was later dropped, the thought remained with many that, had it not been for Professor Gate's high profile and social stature, he would have sat ninety days in CountyJail instead of cozying up with the President for an amusing photo-op "Beer Summit."
Disorderly conduct law was never intended, nor was it originally written, to be enforced in this way. This was supposed be a simple law of manners.
The charge of disorderly conduct has its historic roots in an Old English common law "breach of peace," and was basically a means by which to control drunken, public brawling.
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