6:00 AM EST, February 4, 2013
Baltimore activist Kim Trueheart was back at City Hall last week after a judge lifted a ban on her presence there that was at least unjustified and possibly illegal. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who often bears the brunt of Ms. Trueheart's criticism of city government, has said if it was up to her, the trespassing charges against Ms. Trueheart would be dropped because City Hall "is the people's building." It would be easy to chalk the whole thing up to a mistake by someone in the police department and declare no harm, no foul. Except for the time Ms. Trueheart spent in Baltimore's Central Booking facility — surely an experience she will not easily forget.
This is not to say that Ms. Trueheart is entirely blameless in this matter. At times, her passion has spilled over into rude and disruptive behavior. While she has at times worked constructively with members of the City Council on legislation and other matters, she has also been known to interrupt public officials when they are speaking and to hijack news conferences to push her own agenda. Elected officials should expect to put up with pointed, even aggressive questioning from the people and the press, but Ms. Trueheart's right to speak does not trump everyone else's. City Hall beat reporters from Baltimore's news outlets sometimes are unable to get their questions answered because of Ms. Trueheart's antics, and that does a disservice to the people who rely on them to hold public officials accountable.
On Jan. 16, Ms. Trueheart interrupted a news conference the mayor was holding, and a police officer, Lt. Rob Morris, asked her to leave City Hall and not come back. When she showed up at the Board of Estimates meeting on Jan. 23, she was asked to leave the building but refused. She was charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing and failing to obey and officer's command. She was taken to Central Booking and released the next morning.
The police officers who provide security at City Hall have an obligation to ensure the physical safety of those who work there, and Ms. Trueheart needs to respect that. When the officers tell her to step back, she needs to do it. Still, if the officers were concerned that she posed a threat, there were more constructive ways to handle the situation — like providing her an escort while she is in the building. That was how building security handled the case of former Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber after he rushed the podium during a City Council meeting.
Nothing in Ms. Trueheart's charging documents suggests that she had made threats to the mayor or others. Indeed, Ms. Trueheart has been a fixture at City Hall for years and is known for her detailed knowledge of City Council and Board of Estimates proceedings. In particular, she has focused her energies on advocating for more and better youth services, regular audits of city agencies and scrutiny of tax breaks for developers. She frequently has sharp words for the mayor but is on good terms with others in City Hall.
There is, evidently, no policy for when someone should be banned from City Hall, and police officials say no one else has been banned. That is as it should be. The right to observe the workings of government and to question public officials is fundamental to our democracy. It is one thing to escort someone out of the building when they become disruptive, but it is something else entirely to enact a proactive ban. Such a step should be reserved for the most extreme cases.
Ms. Trueheart's passion for holding city government accountable and advocating for the causes she finds important is something we should encourage, not seek to block. At the same time, Ms. Trueheart needs to acknowledge that her behavior may at times do more harm to her cause than good. The police who barred her from City Hall made a mistake, but Ms. Trueheart should also look to the occasion to seek a fresh start. Ms. Trueheart need not apologize for her criticism of the mayor's policies, but she owes it to herself and the issues she champions to take care that criticism does not become belligerence.
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