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Friday, August 22, 2014

Talking about free speech or talking about racial justice?

The focus of public and media conversation on Ferguson has shfted. We are talking less about the triggering events--the possible murder/possible unconstitutionally excessive police shooting of Michael Brown,(*) the underlying racial atmosphere that made that shooting more likely, and systematic constitutional problems within the Ferguson Police Department--than about the First Amendment problems with how police have responded (and continue to respond) to peaceful protests in a public forum.(**) This has become a miniature of the Civil Rights Movement. When protesters hit the streets in the South and Bull Connor, et al., responded as they did, the legal conversation, at least in the courts, turned to the First Amendment and away from the underlying racial problems and racist policies that the protesters were attacking and seeking to change. The cases that reached SCOTUS arising from the events on the ground largely dealt with First Amendment rights to protestsit in, crticize, organize, and advocate against the racist and discriminatory policies and practices in the South, without real discussion or resolution about their legality, constitutionality, or morality. Certainly these all were important victories for the movement and its members (as well as for society as a whole), but they can feel sterile when the underlying injustices are forgotten or pushed below the surface. The Court itself never directly tackled the underlying constitutional validity of most pieces of Jim Crow (primarily because Congress did it for them).

 (*) Although the competence and commitment of the county prosecutor to vigorously prosecute a police officer has moved to the front of the line for the moment. Since the grand jury might take two months, this will go away soon, unless the governor preemptively appoints a special prosecutor.

(**) While somewhat overstated, Dahlia Lithwick makes some good points comparing police responses to these protests (which, unfortunately, likely will not be successfully litigated after the fact) with what the Supreme Court said in McCullen v. Coakley was constitutionally required, particularly about potential distinctions between protest and counseling.

On one hand, this is appropriate for the First Amendment. The whole point of free speech is that constitutional protection for protest, advocacy, and criticism of government should not turn on the subject of that protest, advocacy, or criticism or its underlying morality. It does not matter whether protesters are complaining about racism, police misconduct, the minimum wage, or United States's tolerance of homosexuality bringing about God's wrath--what matters is that their peaceful protest enjoys First Amendment protection. On the other hand, as Harry Kalven and Burt Neuborne both have argued, the concerns about ending discrimination silently informed the free speech jurisprudence of the early '60s--without necessarily saying so, the Court protected free speech precisely so the underlying system of racism and segregation could be attacked and, hopefully, changed.

But that leaves a nice question whether we (courts, the law, and the public) miss something by not talking more explicitly about the underlying issues leading to the protests and the First Amendment violations. And, more cynically, whether the national outrage over Ferguson that has latched onto the First Amendment concerns (because everyone feels and cares about "their" First Amendment rights personally) frees us to ignore the underlying racial injustice (which is personally disconnected from most people).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 22, 2014 at 10:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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