“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Considering our audience, perhaps it seems unnecessary to quote what is possibly the most famous portion of the United States Constitution. But as Pittsburgh recently experienced a case involving free speech, it might not hurt some (the Pennsylvania State Police and Pittsburgh Police Department, mostly) to have a brief refresher course.
Even though City police claim to have stopped issuing tickets or citations for swearing at police way back in March 2009, it took until January of this year — and the involvement of the ACLU — to get the state to agree to the same policy. While swearing and making obscene gestures towards law enforcement may be an unwise move (not to mention something your mother would surely disapprove of), there is nothing inherently illegal with expressing yourself with words or body motions. Of course, these rights do not extend to when these expressions begin to threaten someone. But when the safety and property of those around us are not being threatened, why should there be legislation governing what we can say?
But let’s not think that this is an isolated case of an assault on free speech. The Foundation published a piece a few weeks ago on the dangers of an Egyptian-style shut down of the Internet. We’ve seen the local police union threatening felony charges for those responsible for a satirical Fraternal Order of Police press release. Local citizens, hoping to do nothing more than civilly express their opinions to their local council have been arrested for doing so. And in recent years, we have seen the push to limit how citizens and corporations express their political views with campaign finance “reforms”.
Quite often, laws flying in the face of free speech are often sold as doing a public service. Take for example last year’s frenzy in Pennsylvania to stop and prosecute the sending of sexually explicit text messages. Yes, perhaps this bill is accomplishing a noble goal. But would it not be far more noble for parents and their children to assume the responsibility to not participate in such activity (unless, of course, you want to; this is America after all). Parents, perhaps wanting their children to be “scared straight” in regards to sending or receiving such messages, support such a bill without considering the sweeping effects it could have.
Where do we go from here? When one of the most basic and accepted rights we have is being slowly chiseled away, what can the electorate and the population as a whole do? Now, more than ever, it is time for Pennsylvanians to take control and be diligent regarding such Constitutionally-prohibited cases especially at the local and state level where lawmakers and law enforcement are more accountable and accessible.