In March of 2005, President Bush gave a speech about Social Security at the Wings Over the Rockies Air Museum in Denver, Colorado. Three Bush opponents, Leslie Weise, Karen Bauer, and Alex Young, were thrown out of the event because they arrived in a car sporting a “No Blood for Oil” bumpersticker. In response, Ms. Weise and Mr. Young filed a lawsuit in federal court against the two individuals who threw them out, Michael Casper and Jay Bob Klinkerman (aka “the defendants”), and they have recently filed suit against three White House staffers for breaching Ms. Weise’s and Mr. Young’s free speech rights. (For my original comments on this, please read my first post here).
Today, various news outlets (including the two used for this post, the NYTimes online and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) reported that the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit had been rejected by Federal District Court and that the defendants had filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The rationales used were twofold: first, that the federal government has the same legal authority as a private corporation with regard to controlling its message to the people and second, that the defendants should be granted governmental immunity to prosecution for their actions.
I’m not a legal scholar, but with what I know about private corporations vis a vis the government, the government is only peripherally similar to a private corporation. For example, the federal government has the authority to raise a standing army, levy taxes, enter into and break alliances with other nations, print money, and make and enforce laws. Private corporations are not permitted to do any of those things. Citizens and residents of the United States are given a choice whether they wish to be an employee of a particular corporation (essentially a type of freedom of assembly), but they are not given any choice over whether they are subject to the authority of the federal government. Because there is such a radically different level of power and authority between the federal government and private corporations, the parallels between private corporations and the federal government are few.
Given that corporations are considered to be people and the federal government is not, corporations are given certain rights that the government is not, including the right to free speech, assembly, etc. However, until the government is granted “corporate personhood” via Constitutional amendment, the government will not be permitted “free speech” as an entity. Because of the radical differences between the federal government and private corporations, I believe that the “government should be considered a corporation in regard to free speech” argument will fall upon deaf ears.
The second ground for appeal, that the defendants, as volunteers for a governmental function, should be granted government immunity to prosecution, is a little thornier, but in my opinion, still wrong-headed. I don’t know if there are laws that address this directly, but even if there are, there are no laws that may be passed by Congress and signed into law by the President that can remove the Constitutional rights of a private citizen without due process. And last I checked, “You look like you could be a threat to the dissemination of the President’s message” doesn’t qualify as “due process.” Free speech rights cannot be taken away so easily, so I believe that, even if the Appeals Court does buy into this argument, it will be overturned in a likely inevitable Supreme Court appeal.
Ultimately, however, what bothers me the most about this whole issue is that the White House used volunteers to stifle dissent at a taxpayer-funded event. My fellow Coloradoans and myself paid for President Bush’s speech, and so every Coloradoan should have had an opportunity to attend, supporter or not. The defendant’s lawyers stated outright that the fact that Ms Weise and Mr. Young had different opinions than the President was reason enough to eject the two. Last I heard it, freedom of speech meant that you had the right to speak, even if that occasionally meant that you annoyed or frustrated anyone who happened to be listening. And that means that hecklers have just as much right to heckle (at least at a publicly-funded event) as the President has a right to “control his message.”
And, quite frankly, if our president can’t think well enough on his feet to handle a heckler or three, then I don’t want him running the country. Oh, never mind….
[Crossposted from The Daedalnexus]