When Free Speech Degenerates to Threats

There can sometimes be a fine difference between Constitutionally protected free speech and criminal threats. Criminal intimidation may involve speech, but such speech does not fall under the shield of the First Amendment. Cross burning provides a compelling example. While ugly speech expressing racial hatred is permitted, those same sentiments expressed by cross burning are not. The reason is that cross burning was widely practiced by groups like the Klu Klux Klan as a direct threat against black people and others who sympathized with the plight of blacks. Hence, historical practice has caused cross burning to be unequivocally associated with a clear and direct threat of physical harm.

Protests and marches can sometimes straddle the distinction between First Amendment rights and unlawful behavior. Marching around a government building, for example, to express displeasure with a government policy is protected by the First Amendment. If such marches are meant to physically prevent the free passage of others, or if members act in ways that a reasonable person would feel physically intimated, the right of “people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” degenerates into unlawful behavior. In many cases, we must rely on the judgment of local police officers to recognize the distinction. Rightly, the general rule has been to grant fairly large latitude to protestors.

We submit here that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) crossed the line in the protest at the home of Greg Baer, counsel the Bank of America. About 500 members of the  SEIU and National Political Action another Progressive group (out of Chicago) assembled on the front lawn of Greg Baer. They were there ostensibly to protest foreclosures by the banks on delinquent mortgages. The group actually occupied the home’s porch with bullhorns blasting chants. The activities were sufficiently disconcerting that Baer’s teenage son, the only one home, took refuge in a locked bathroom in the house. The fact that the young man was afraid does not alone provide proof that the SEIU and its allies were a threatening crowd. However, other facts suggest that the purpose of the group was intimidation.

  1.  Usually protestors notify any major media groups that will listen in the hopes that the presence of media will amplify whatever message they are trying to send. The only media present was a sympathetic reporter for the Huffington Post.  This was clearly not a message meant for the public, but at an individual.
  2. Protests are usually conducted at places of business or other public places. A protest at a private residence directed against a particular individual more closely resembles the mob scene in Frankenstein that it does arm-in-arm parades of the Civil Rights movement.
  3. When the local, Montgomery County Maryland police were called in, the hapless officers who responded were intimated. Nina Easton, the next door neighbor of Baer and Bureau Chief of Fortune Magazine, reported that the officers were afraid that the attempts to clear the property of protesters would “incite” trespassing protesters. While the discretion of the officers may have been wise, it does suggest that the mood of the crowd was not congenial.

The ease with which SEIU was able to execute this threatening assembly and the fact that it has been essentially uncovered in the major press is frightening. Indeed, the ombudsman of the Washington Post was also concerned by the lack of coverage. One Washington Post reader suggested that if a group of Tea Party protestors assembled on the lawn of a Congressman and frightened his family, the story would have been above the fold on the front page.

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