Friday, October 19, 2012

First Amendment battle in Providence, RI

Isn't our entire country a First Amendment Area?
Though not front page news, The Providence Journal finally did get around to covering, in detail, the case Reilly v. City of Providence. In Sides differ on details in free-speech case by Michael P. McKinney, the court filings of both sides were revealed.

On February 2, 2010 Judith Reilly and Oscar Lemus were handing out fliers on behalf of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association, criticizing a mayoral appointment made by then Mayor, now Congressman David Cicilline. According to Reilly, by way of The Providence Journal,
…two police officers told Reilly and another person leafleting with her, Oscar Lemus, to move across the road with the leaflets or face arrest. Reilly moved and then returned to the front of the auditorium, where two other officers told her to move. The plaintiff alleges that action illegally barred her from handing fliers to the people going into the auditorium, defeating the purpose of a constitutionally protected activity.
Here's the thing: We have the Constitutional right to protest in this country. Limits have been placed on this right, for instance, we are not allowed to be overly disruptive when using this right, but let's face it, some disruption has to occur. The price we pay for freedom in this country is that sometimes we might have to be exposed to ideas and words we do not like.

Two people offering fliers on the sidewalk outside a political event where the Mayor of Providence was to deliver the annual State of the City speech (and, in attendance, was the Chief of Police as well as many other high ranking city officials) satisfies the criteria of being a minimal amount of intrusion on the part of those protesting and of being the kind of event where such a protest is appropriate. The powers that be might not like it, but the laws of our country and the rights of our citizens are not subject to the whims of the powers that be.

In twice forcing Reilly and Lemus to distribute fliers across the street, where no one was, because the crowd was on the side of the street where the event was being held, and threatening the pair with arrest if they did not comply, the City of Providence and the Providence Police Department was engaging in textbook police state tactics.
“No crowds gathered nor was there any disruption, dissent or disorderly conduct,” according to the plaintiff in court papers, and there was no danger to people or the building as a reason for police to move the leafleters. DeAndrade “never claimed that plaintiff or Lemus were violating any laws, obstructing the sidewalk or creating a disturbance — only that they could not remain on the public sidewalk in front of the” technical academy.
The response of the defendants in this case is ludicrous.  According to The Providence Journal report the "leafleters were ordered to move 'to keep open exit passageways in the event of the necessity for a mass evacuation of the building for unforeseen circumstances such as a bomb scare…'"

Right. Because two people offering fliers to people as they entered the building would completely block the ability of a couple hundred people to exit the building in the unlikely event of a bomb scare.

With the Providence Police Department clearly caught abusing their authority in this case, one might think that they would simply publicly apologize and clarify their policy regarding Constitutionally protected speech. Instead they have dug in their heels and come up with ridiculous rationalizations for their behavior.

Defending this behavior will end up costing the taxpayers a hefty chunk of money in legal fees, and when the city inevitably loses this case the City and the Police Department will be forced to publicly apologize and clarify their policy regarding Constitutionally protected speech anyway.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Judith Reilly is a personal friend and one of the nicest and least obstructive people I know.)

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