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Opening Arguments

Fighting words

Like President Obama, the rest of us weren't present when the policeman and the professor had their now-infamous confrontation. But we really don't have to know the exact facts in order to make one declaration: Even if we stipulate that everything the cop said is true -- that Prof. Gates went on an unjustified, vile, race-inspired, hate-filled rant -- the cop should have backed down. He had the badge and the gun and therefore all the power. His was the greater obligation to calm things down by just walking away. Once it was established that Gates was indeed the owner of the house, and it was clear no crime had been committed, it was time for the police to leave. Gates was essentially arrested just for giving the officer lip. I've covered the police beat a time or two in my journalistic career, and I know that happens a lot. I once overheard some officers talking in a squad room, and one bragged that he always treated his traffic stops nicely, unless, of course, they started mouthing off.

This guy says it a lot better, and the whole thing, which has ample Supreme Court case cites to back up his claim that this is, at heart, a First Amendment issue, is a recommended read:

The Cambridge Police Department and the District Attorney of Middlesex County wisely agreed with Gates and his lawyers to dismiss the charge of "disorderly conduct." Perhaps the dismissal was occasioned by the discomfort prosecutors--and perhaps both sides--were feeling about proceeding to a criminal trial where both Gates' and Crowley's words would be on public display. But the D.A. had another reason for dismissing the charge: Had Professor Gates and his lawyers raised a First Amendment defense, the defendant almost certainly would have prevailed--if not at the trial court level, then in the appellate courts--and the scope of the "disorderly persons" statute would have been severely limited in all future citizen-police confrontations. The future use of handcuffs to penalize a citizen mouthing-off against official authority would have been, at long last, curtailed. Perhaps the common good would have been better served had the case proceeded to trial after all.

There is a serious problem in this country: Police are overly sensitive to insults from those they confront. And one can hardly blame the confronted citizen, especially if the citizen is doing nothing wrong when confronted by official power. This is, after all, a free country, and if "free" means anything meaningful, it means being left alone--especially in one's own home--when one is not breaking the law.

Since the writer is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, the one thing that is missing from his analysis is any sympathy for Sgt. Crowley. Police are under enormous stress -- any confrontation on any day could be a fatal one -- which makes some of their overreactions understandable. But his defense of our right to say dumb things is a rousing one, nonetheless.

A defense that also applies to President Obama,


Wed, 07/29/2009 - 2:09pm

You were doing so well up until the lame Obama crack at the end.

Police misconduct is everyone's business, even people you don't agree with politically.

(And if the situation was none of his business, how is it then any of yours?)

Leo Morris
Wed, 07/29/2009 - 2:22pm

It's only "everyone's business" in the Donne "For Whom the Bell Tolls" sense -- we are all involved in mankind. That doesn't mean we can or should obsess over the thousands of police-citizen confrontations that happen every day. This particular one is our business now only because the president of the United States shot his mouth off about it. I meant the incident was none of his business not as a person but as the president. When he was elected to that post, he stopped being just one of the guys who can mouth off about whatever they want.

Wed, 07/29/2009 - 8:48pm

We should be concerned about those confrontations when they go wrong. The best way for the bad guys to get away with wrongdoing is when we convince ourselves we shouldn't be paying attention.

And the president didn't simply shoot his mouth off about it - you're deliberately miss-characterizing what happened. He was asked a specific question, and gave his honest answer without dancing around it. That's respectable in my book.

tim zank
Thu, 07/30/2009 - 8:36pm

His Holiness spouted off when he shouldn't have. Period. There are some things the leader of the free world need not weigh in upon.

Regardless who was at fault, a cop doing his job, or a sanctimonius prick who is obviously a moron, the prez needn't comment publicly.

He's a frickin' amateur.

Leo Morris
Fri, 07/31/2009 - 7:26am

Now see what happened? Because I threw in that remark at the end about President Obama, the comments have veered off into a discussion about him, distracting from the point I wanted to make about the First Amendment. Obama could take a lesson from ME, too.