Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Failure of the First Amendment

A couple days ago, a Congressman held a Town Hall meeting. Police -- at the direction of the Congressman or his staff -- confiscated citizen cellphones and video recorders in order "to protect the constituents" but left a TV station's camera alone.

Don't take my word for it; the video is pretty self-explanatory and worth watching.

Last year it would have been Democrats targeted by Tea Party activists; this time it's Republican Steve Chabot of Cincinnati targeted by Progressive activists.

Since this happened, Chabot's spokesman Jamie Schwartz says they won't confiscate cameras or cellphones in the future. Video recording was banned, Chabot's office says, because sometimes people ask questions with personal details that should remain personal. The news media cameras could stay because the media could be "...expected to respect people's privacy."

That politicians don't want to be caught on video saying something stupid, or looking stupid, isn't a surprise. They manage to do so quite nicely, with or without video, and most understand it's the way democracy works.


I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

My boldface enhancing the Oath of Office members of Congress take upon a new term. It's important, those words to "support" and "defend" the Constitution, which includes this language to lead off the Amendments:

"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." - First Amendment, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights

Most police officers also take an Oath of Office, and that sworn duty usually includes language relating to the Constitution. In this case, what exactly does "protect constituents" mean? Is it the same as "that's what they want," as noted by the police officer? Security reasons? When a TV station camera is filming the entire exchange?

In a public school -- a school gymnasium -- where one would assume during games played by children their parents are free to use cellphones and video cameras to share the experience?

During a public meeting, in a public venue, held by a public official -- with a public police officer enforcing "what they want."

"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" apparently was enough for the Chabot entourage and this police officer to leave the media alone, but they only got it half right.

- - -

This is a disturbing trend, the open disdain for the rights of citizens to monitor their government at work -- whether it be Congress or the police. And it's a trend that should unite those of us in the media to stand up and speak out when any citizen's most basic, most Constitutional right is violated.

Last January here in Akron, a police officer who ignored a superior's command to ignore a women filming him -- from across the street, on her own property -- and arrested her. Phil Trexler's excellent reporting here in the Akron Beacon Journal jump starts the story, which continues on appeal.

In July, a similar story grabbed headlines and a quick response from the news media (including RTDNA, the Radio Television Digital News Association) when a police officer in Suffolk County, New York arrested a photojournalist for daring to follow along with the aftermath of a high-speed chase. Again, let's go to the video:

My friends in law enforcement don't like it when cameras catch cops doing bad things. I can't blame them. I don't like it when cameras catch reporters doing bad things, either, but a cornerstone of the American way of life is the central theme of the public right to know.

While video or audio from a 9-1-1 call may not tell the complete story, they are important tools that allow the folks paying the bill to see and hear for themselves. It cuts both ways; it condemns those who would abuse their power, but it also illuminates and protects those from abuse. Just ask any police officer about the impact of dash-cam video when used to prosecute drunk and reckless drivers. It's made their job not only more efficient, but more just.

This First Amendment is what distinguishes the U.S. Constitution from those in so many other nations; the belief that the people ultimately hold the cards, and the people can be treated like adults to digest what they see, hear and read to decide for themselves.

Hiding the wheels of justice, or hiding a Congressman from his own constituents, is a no-brainer abuse of the U.S. Constitution these public servants take an oath to uphold. It's the bedrock of a free and open society, which is why totalitarian governments move so quickly to quash freedom of speech and expression. Those who abuse power know the truth, that freedom is empowering.

There is no exclusivity to abuse of power. Last year, Democrats didn't like the Tea Party using such tactics such as video recording a congressional Town Hall meeting; this time outside of Cincinnati, it was a Republican targeting Progressives employing the same strategy. The label of liberal or conservative, Tea Party or Progressive, doesn't matter when the central issue becomes an abuse of the power granted these public servants by the very Constitution they swear to uphold. That covers those elected such as Steve Chabot, as well as those appointed such as the police officer caught on tape openly abusing the U.S. Bill of Rights.

As long as we keep silent on such issues -- not only as members of the media but also as fellow citizens -- we encourage such abuses, and embolden those who would impose their version of orderly dialogue on a system the founding fathers clearly envisioned as a sometimes messy but always necessary component of democracy. Too many of our forefathers spilled their blood to have it any other way.

When Chabot holds his next meeting, folks asking personal questions will be asked to come forward after the public meeting to share their details. It's a good, common sense approach that a more constitutionally-aware adult would have reached before trampling over the rights of the people to exercise their public business in public.

Perhaps the oath of office should include a history lesson, too.

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