One of the reasons that societies create governments is to help people manage interactions between one another. Without government or codified law, reasonable differences of opinion might turn to violent behavior. Human beings do share a lot of behaviors with other primates and can often be annoying creatures to be around. This suggests that some form of social management either through superstition, religious mores or codified rule of law is necessary if we are to survive as a species.
That said, the legal structure in America has become amazingly complex, with four or five different levels of government dictating pretty much everything that we can say, think or do. And even though the basic law of the country, the US Constitution, guarantees that the federal government will not impose certain restrictions on our behavior, states and localities often ignore these basic rights and impose restrictions on speech, assembly or even religion. Eventually these restrictions are thrown out by courts, but this can be an expensive and time consuming process, particularly for an individual that becomes entangles in such a situation.
Today, we examine a provision from my home town of Boulder, Colorado that not just prohibits free speech, but restricts the airing of grievances against the government and its projection of authority via an armed police force.
Citizens Pay Taxes to Ensure That They Cannot Petition Their Government
The American Constitution is an amazing document. In just a few short pages, it creates the structure for a national government that both ensures citizens are, to a large extent, individual actors, while at the same time providing for a powerful system of laws and constraints. One of the most important reasons why the Constitution, and the American state have survived for nearly 250 years, is that citizens are allowed to blow off steam, and protest and complain in a non-violent manner. The First Amendment to the Constitution specifically states, 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. From the abolitionist movement in the 1840s to the labor movement, temperance movement and suffragist movements in the early part of the 20th Century, to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950’s and 60’s right through to today’s gay rights protests, the ability to petition and question the government and its authority is something that has helped define the country.
Most state constitutions contain similar provisions. Article 2, Section 10 of the Colorado State Constitution reads, No law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech; every person shall be free to speak, write or publish whatever he will on any subject, being responsible for all abuse of that liberty; and in all suits and prosecutions for libel the truth thereof may be given in evidence, and the jury, under the direction of the court, shall determine the law and the fact.
But with the rise of so-called political correctness in the 1960s, free speech and the ability to question authority has been put to task. Political correctness began on college campuses with an attempt to change social reality by changing language. This started with a desire to make language more culturally inclusive and gender-neutral. Over time, certain areas of speech began to be labeled as hate speech and in many cases were criminalized.
In Boulder, Colorado, a bastion of political-correctness, this was taken so far as to lead to a ban on speech directed against the authority of the state. In City Ordinance Number 7974, so called Fighting Words, are criminalized. According to the law, No person shall, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another, repeatedly insult, taunt, or challenge another in a manner likely to provoke a disorderly response. If the person to whom such insult, taunt, or challenge is directed is a police officer, there is no violation of this section until the police officer requests the person to cease and discontinue the conduct, but the person repeats or continues the conduct. In other words, it was illegal in Boulder to verbally challenge the authority of a police officer.
Rightly so, a resident of the community challenged the ordinance’s constitutionality, and Boulder County Judge Thomas Reed ruled the ordinance unconstitutional. The City appealed, but the ruling was upheld in Colorado District Court. So in the end, the Constitution won out over political correctness, but the good people of Boulder also lost. Note that the city government was both taken to court and appealed the verdict. While it is impossible to determine from Boulder’s records exactly what was spent to try to thwart citizens’ ability to question the City’s authority, the City Attorney’s office did add an additional 1.525 positions during the period that the case was being adjudicated. At a cost of about $118,197 per person (the average for the office), this would equal $180,250, or $360,500 over two years. This is equal to about $3.50 per person. So the City of Boulder likely spent more than it does on sidewalk repair each year in order to defend a law limiting its resident’s free speech rights.
It is one thing to maintain a civil society. It’s another to use taxpayer funds to thwart the Constitution.
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