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Everybody suffers when officers act like they're above the law [Commentary]

Three years ago, I joined six of my friends in passing out vegetarian recipes and information at the Inner Harbor. Baltimore City Police officers ordered us to stop and demanded that we leave the property, under threat of arrest. So last week, we sued those officers for violating our constitutional rights. We had a First Amendment right to pass out literature at the Inner Harbor, and we had proof of our right to be there — the property management company's specific guidelines — which the officers refused to acknowledge.

It is not just the rights of the speakers that are violated when free speech is suppressed; our entire society suffers when government officials trample on the First Amendment rights of its citizens. As Frederick Douglass explained, "To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money."

As Baltimoreans, we also deserve a city where police uphold the law, not one where they feel they are above it.

These officers should have known that they were in the wrong; police training is supposed to thoroughly cover the First Amendment, including both leafleters and protesters. Why else would these officers have refused to even look at the documentation we offered that proved we were allowed to be there passing out noncommercial literature? We posed no imminent threat.

No, these officers took action not in order to stop a crime or do their duty as police officers; they ordered us to stop passing out leaflets and leave the Inner Harbor because they thought they could get away with it. They assumed we did not know our rights.

I love the United States of America for many reasons, and the First Amendment to our Constitution is high on my list. Since I was in high school, I have been knocking on doors to support political candidates, attending rallies and protests on behalf of social justice causes, and passing out literature in public spaces.

I have also read extensively about past social justice movements, and my study of history teaches me that all social advancement has required the free and open exchange of ideas. Freedom of speech is fundamental not just to our Constitution and national identity but to basic justice and social progress.

In my desire to win greater protection for animals, I have taken advantage of my constitutional right to distribute literature in all of our nation's major cities. And while I have encountered the occasional police officer who was unfriendly, the vast majority are polite, helpful and supportive of free speech. This was the only time when I had to choose between the First Amendment and a jail cell.

One of my co-plaintiffs told the police officers who encircled and detained her that she was scared and that she didn't feel safe coming to the Inner Harbor for any purpose, considering these officers' extraordinarily intimidating behavior. The officers were not moved; one of them replied emphatically, "good," and the others let him.

In the three years since our threatened arrest, the American Civil Liberties Union has come to some useful agreements with the city that reverse previous policies that civil libertarians found to be unconstitutional. But those agreements do not address our situation because we are not suing over a bad policy — we are suing specific officers who behaved like thugs rather than peace officers, and who violated our rights not because they were following a bad policy, but because they thought they were above the law, including the Constitution of the United States.

That sort of police behavior threatens all of Baltimore's residents, and it cannot be tolerated.

Bruce Friedrich is a former Baltimore City public school teacher. His email is brucegfriedrich@yahoo.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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