About eight years ago, I met Greensboro blogger Billy Jones. Billy and I disagree on politics almost as often as Fred and I do, but as with Fred, he and I have a very good RL relationship and I consider him a friend.
Billy took to his blog on Tuesday to take issue with the fact that George Hartzman, a candidate for mayor, apparently (I say “apparently” because I have no first-hand knowledge of this) was removed from the city’s farmer’s market this past Saturday for campaigning on city property. Billy’s post includes a lot of the email back-and-forth, which includes not only the original parties but also the Guilford County Board of Elections (which took Hartzman’s side), blogger and formal mayoral candidate Roch Smith Jr., and others. Billy concludes with this segment from the majority ruling in the 1938 U.S. Supreme Court case Lovell v. City of Griffin, which would appear to be the last word on the subject:
“4. A city ordinance forbidding as a nuisance the distribution, by hand or otherwise, of literature of any kind without first obtaining written permission from the City Manager, violates the Fourteenth Amendment; strikes at the very foundation of the freedom of the press by subjecting it to license and censorship. P. 450.
So held as applied to distribution of pamphlets and magazines in the nature of religious tracts.
5. The liberty of the press is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It embraces pamphlets and leaflets. P. 452.
6. One who is prosecuted for disobeying a license ordinance which is void on its face may contest its validity without having sought a permit under it. P. 452. “
(Billy’s link is broken, but his pagination appears to match that of the source to which I’m linking.)
Billy himself then concluded:
I think we know what is going on here. As usual supporters of the status quo are stalling, hoping Greensboro’s working class will give up the fight, roll over and die. Well here’s some news for you Mr S. Mujeeb Shah-Khan: Greensboro’s working class is educated, organized, pissed-off and ready to fight. We have access to the law and the media worldwide. And if you and your kind think you can continue to run Greensboro as Greensboro has been run for the last 100 years… Well click here and I think you will change your mind.
You can run but you cannot hide behind your lies.
Up to this point, some disagreement but nothing egregious. But then, yesterday morning, Greensboro Police Chief Ken Miller, acting in his official capacity, wrote Billy the following:
From: Miller, Ken <Ken.Miller@greensboro-nc.gov>
Date: Wed, Jul 24, 2013 at 7:05 AM
To: “Jones, Billy” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I see a post on your blog that I am requesting and hoping you will remove it right away:
“I think we know what is going on here. As usual supporters of the status quo are stalling, hoping Greensboro’s working class will give up the fight, roll over and die. Well here’s some news for you Mr S. Mujeeb Shah-Khan: Greensboro’s working class is educated, organized, pissed-off and ready to fight. We have access to the law and the media worldwide. And if you and your kind think you can continue to run Greensboro as Greensboro has been run for the last 100 years… Well click here and I think you will change your mind.
You can run but you cannot hide behind your lies.”
The language appears threatening and, even if you can qualify it as protected speech, adding the link to a Google map of Mujeeb’s home after indicating that the working class is “ready to fight” and before “you can run but you cannot hide…” certainly can be construed to be threatening or encouraging others to act upon your information.
I am, of course, appealing to your sensibilities here in asking you to remove the paragraph from your site, and I hope you will honor the request.
I’m not sure what the chief is thinking here, but he certainly is not thinking about the Supreme Court’s standard for what comprises a threat without constitutional protection. Having gotten a copy of Chief Miller’s email, I wrote to set him straight:
From: Lex Alexander <email@example.com>
Date: July 24, 2013
Subject: Billy Jones
I don’t normally involve myself in local politics beyond voting (which I haven’t missed doing since moving here 27 years ago), but violations of basic human and constitutional rights are a whole ‘nother subject.
I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me, right? Tell me you didn’t send that moronic email Billy Jones quotes you as having sent. There’s nothing in Billy’s blog post that comes anywhere CLOSE to the standard for threats defined by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio:
…the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
You owe him an apology, and you owe us, the citizens of Greensboro, better sense. If you can’t muster it, resign. If you’re actually this misinformed, you’re just a lawsuit waiting to happen, and frankly, my tax dollars have better things to do than clean up your mess.
(The chief sent a one-sentence response thanking me for my perspective, which, depending on how you look at it, could be the civil response of a man swamped by job duties or an upraised middle finger.)
Feel free to disagree with Billy about city policy. Feel free to disagree with George Hartzman’s rights to speak on public property if you like; Lovell, after all, speaks to pamphleteering, not actual spoken words, and Hartzman’s efforts to speak may or may not have run afoul of time, place and manner restrictions recognized by the Supreme Court — I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.
But communicating threats is a crime in North Carolina, and it is incumbent upon law enforcement to understand, then, what constitutes a prosecutable threat. Billy’s blog post was a warning, not a threat, and it certainly does not appear on its face likely to “incite or produce” “imminent, lawless action.” We demonstrably have a police chief who does not understand the difference; thus, we have a chief unfit for his job.
My involvement in local politics is limited to voting, and that’s not changing here because when a high-ranking local official demonstrates constitutional ignorance in an area of his supposed expertise, that’s a problem for every resident of the city, not a political issue. If nothing else, it leaves every one of us city taxpayers legally exposed if someone sues the city for official actions stemming from that ignorance. And as I said in my email to Chief Miller, my tax dollars have better things to do. I’m pretty sure yours do, too.