When I used to teach journalism at Temple University, one of the things that I’d hand my students is a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution.
I did this because you have people out there who forget that among the things covered in the Constitution is freedom of speech and press. In the 23 years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve had to remind folks of that more than once.
(Note: It’s not supposed to cover threatening the President, but as partisans of President Barack Obama could probably tell you, that particular rule isn’t always enforced.)
Because the First Amendment covers all forms of speech, reporters can ask questions. They can cover protests. They can go to meetings where public officials are gathered and report on the shenanigans they see.
The Constituion also allows for unpopular speech. I know, because folks are still mad at me for suggesting that it might be time for the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to have a seat.
It’s the provision for unpopular speech that’s making me look for my own pocket copy of the Constitution.
You have the right to protest
Over the last few weeks, people all around the country (and the world) have taken to the streets to protest the failure of Grand Juries to hand down indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.
As I started to write this column, word came down that two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, had been gunned down in Brooklyn by a man who tried to wrap himself in the #BlackLivesMatter movement via an Instagram post, and use the deaths of Brown and Garner as an excuse to do something heinous.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people, mostly on the right, bought it hook, line and sinker.
From Patrick Lynch, president of the NYPD’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, to former New York Governor George Pataki, to the woman who wants to be the right ‘s answer to Beyonce’, Stacey Dash, they took to whatever media outlet would have them. Then they equated the protest marches with the actions of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who shot the two officers. Folks denounced Mayor DeBlasio, Attorney General Eric Holder, Sharpton, President Obama and everyone else they could think of.
And because I try to bring a little local flavor to everything I write, I can only imagine what Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby has to say about this. He’s already called protestors “hate mongers” for the various die-ins and other actions that have taken since the Brown and Garner decisions were handed down.
The troubling police stance on protests
Now it’s bad enough to have to explain how the First Amendment works to regular citizens.
But to have to explain it to people who have sworn an oath to support, protect and defend the Constitution is downright depressing.
So let me help you all out.
Under the First Amendment, the people who believe that Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo literally got away with murder are allowed to take to the streets and protest the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict.
As long as no one is breaking windows, beating anyone up, or otherwise committing a crime, the only thing our government, in the form of the police department, is allowed to do is make sure that the protest is done safely and legally.
You can also counter protest, which means that the NYPD can put on “I Can Breathe” t-shirts and tell people that you’ll be able to breathe as long as you do what we say. It’s kinda uncool to use a man’s last words like that, but okay.
But a quasi-governmental agency like a police department trying to imply that only one side of this equation should get a hearing? That’s the last thing that should happen here.
And to try and connect something like the police shootings to people exercising free speech is, for want of a classier way to put it, stupid.
So maybe it’s time for all of us to understand that free speech applies to everyone….No matter what side of the “blue line” you’re on…
Photo: Eric Garner protest, New York City. Tristan Oliveira / Flickr Creative Commons.
Denise Clay is a veteran journalist, a former adjunct professor, and an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists. She is a regular contributor to Solomonjones.com. Click here to learn more about Denise.