First Amendment outrage of the week

Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Each week, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original story
  • Denver officers tell group protesting botched police raid to disperse

  • Denver cops disassemble right to protest


    Tragedy struck down Ismael Mena in his own home last September in a no-knock police raid. The cops had the wrong house. Mena, who had nine children, was killed. Subsequent police department behavior led to a perjury charge and the chief’s resignation, even as the SWAT team was officially cleared. Understandably, many Denver residents are upset.

    A group called Justice for Mena staged a protest this week against the botched raid and related matters. They went to the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare and public forum. Over the lunch hour they handed out leaflets and made declarations through a bullhorn. They were peaceful. Police, however, broke up the demonstration.

    The reason: A security guard at a nearby building complained about the bullhorn. Said Denver Police Detective Mary Thomas: “If there’s a complaint, the First Amendment doesn’t apply.”

    Someone needs to grab that bullhorn and say, “Wrong.”

    The First Amendment says no law should abridge “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Those who disagree with such assemblies will always complain. If mere complaint could sweep away the Bill of Rights, it would never protect us.

    No, Officer Thomas, the First Amendment does apply, complaint or no complaint. There is an applicable doctrine having to do with time, place and manner for public demonstrations, under which, depending on circumstances, it might be reasonable for police to ask protesters to turn off a bullhorn. But to disperse peaceful demonstrators from a public place, however sensitive might be the subject of their protest, is simply unconstitutional.

    Imagine if government could make all kinds of mistakes and never allow anyone to complain. Most governments around the world would probably like to have such a situation. We have the First Amendment to make sure that our government doesn’t.

    And still outraged by …

    • City’s limit on church attendance out of line
      Portland, Ore., official tries to solve neighborhood-nuisance problem by stripping worshippers of basic rights.
    • School’s art lesson doesn’t make grade
      For crime of displaying disturbing art, Sarah Boman is suspended and told she needs mental exam.
    • Breaking down his door shattered his First Amendment rights
      Town gadflies can be exasperating, maybe libelous — but that doesn’t mean they should be hauled off their live cable-TV shows and arrested, as happened in Winchester, Tenn.
    • Turning libel law upside down
      New Jersey appeals court says newspaper must prove that it shouldn’t have to face lawsuit.
    • School reads safety threat in student’s stanzas
      James LaVine tried to understand school violence by exploring it in a poem, but his school saw his effort as a security risk.
    • Misjudgment cuts off public disclosure, imperils open access
      Security was the reason Judge William J. Zloch gave this week when he cut off public access to the financial disclosure records of federal judges nationwide. But the real security threat here is to press freedom, judicial accountability and open government.
    • Muscling in on student press freedom
      For 30 years Freeport (N.Y.) High School’s newspaper, Flashings, published school news freely, without meddling by school officials.
    • They turned kid’s scary story into a crime scene
      In adult minds, 13-year-old Christopher Beamon deserved six days in jail for what he wrote in his class assignment.

    More outrage