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Twittering in the First Degree

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International summitry has attracted over the past few years an array of protesters. Some are peaceful, out to make a point about the lack of accountability of the international system in its adherence to free-trade norms. Others are not. I’m sympathetic to the use of aggressive tactics by the police to keep the latter in check, and to the dilemma that police face in sorting out the innocent protesters from those who are up to mischief. But I also believe that the right of citizens to protest peacefully should not be upended in the process of controlling the miscreants. Catching footage of the police efforts to control crowds at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, I kept asking myself: where’s the adult supervision?

Radley Balko has a very thoughtful discussion of these issues up at Reason, in the course of which he makes some compelling points.

Unfortunately, the projection of overwhelming force at such events is becoming more common. At last year’s Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, police conducted peremptory raids on the homes of protesters before the convention. Journalists who inquired about the legitimacy of the raids and arrests made during the convention were also arrested. In all, 672 people were arrested, including at least 39 journalists. The arrest of Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was captured on a widely-viewed video. She was charged with “conspiracy to riot.” Those charges were dropped. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported in February that 442 of the 672 who were arrested had their charges either dropped or dismissed.

These are precisely the kinds of events where free speech and the freedom to protest is in most need of protection. Instead, the more high-profile the event, the more influential the players, and the more high-stakes the decision being made, the more determined police and political officials seem to be in making sure dissent is kept as far away from the decision makers as possible. Or silenced entirely.

The fundamental problem is that the priorities of the police are being perverted. They should ensure the safety and security of the meetings they are deployed to protect. But they also have a duty to protect the free speech rights of ordinary citizens and to separate them from the troublemakers. This is the duty that is being abdicated.

Indeed, in Pittsburgh, the police consistently appeared to overreact. They did not respect peaceful protest and seemed to mistake every demonstrator for a violent anarchist. Their heavy-handed tactics included some bizarre moves, including the arrest and charging of a New Yorker named Elliot Madison for a brand-new crime: twittering confidential information about police movements to the protesters. The Pittsburgh police has charged its prisoner with “hindering apprehension, criminal use of communication facility and possessing instruments of crime.” The “instruments of crime” apparently included scanners and computer equipment. The prisoner had been twittering information about police movements to the public. That’s a crime? Evidently in the minds of the police (and the Madison case appears so far to involve the Pittsburgh police, the Pennsylvania state police and the FBI). That’s news to me. So far I haven’t been able to locate in any statute book a basis for the police claims to secrecy about information that they transmit in publicly accessible radio bands, and the police haven’t yet bothered to explain themselves. On the other hand, the prisoner’s right to do what he was doing is pretty clearly staked out: it is in the first amendment.

But there’s another parallel here that can only serve to heighten the concerns of those who see evidence of a creeping National Security State. Mr. Madison was doing precisely what the protesters in Tehran did throughout the Green Revolution—as Western leaders, including many of those assembled at the G-20 in Pittsburgh, saluted their heroism. The police’s efforts to criminalize tweeting looks downright creepy and rests on the constitutionally suspicious assumption that police’s movements, like military maneuvers in wartime, are entitled to some sort of national security protection. That’s just the sort of reasoning we would expect of Ahmadinejad and his thugs. But an American police force? I for one hope these charges aren’t dropped. It’s time for these police tactics to be tested against the Constitution, by a judge who is sworn to uphold it.

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