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Editorial: Being offensive isn’t a crime

Editorial: Being offensive isn’t a crime

Editorial: Being offensive isn’t a crime
Photographer: Shutterstock

Burglary and theft and robbery are crimes.

Assault and homicide and rape are crimes. Fraud and perjury are crimes. Drunken driving and selling drugs and inciting a riot and stalking are crimes.

They’re crimes because each, in its own way, deprives citizens of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Saying something offensive or annoying or even hateful, however, deprives no one of any of those rights.

Yet more and more, we’re seeing laws creep in in which people are being threatened with arrest and the loss of their personal liberty for simply saying something that other people don’t like to hear.

We live in a country whose entire existence is based on freedom, in which freedom of speech, expression, religion, petition and the press are specifically guaranteed in the very first amendment to our Constitution.

At what point in the 243 years since America declared its independence did we become so ultrasensitive that we now expect someone to go to jail for simply saying something offensive or annoying?

In Monroe County, which includes the city of Rochester, the county Legislature last week passed a measure that allows police officers to arrest anyone who “annoys, alarms or threatens the personal safety of an officer,” according to local television station WLNY. The law also covers EMS and first responders.

Conviction carries a penalty of up to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail. A public hearing and approval by the county executive are the next steps toward enactment of this law.

We understand the part about threatening the personal safety of an officer or a firefighter or ambulance crew. And we understand about interfering with these personnel in the performance of their duties. But isn’t all that already against the law?

But annoying or alarming police officers, people with the authority and firepower to control us? That could include everything from carrying on a bit too much when an officer pulls you over, to flipping off an officer as he’s driving by, to shouting at an officer who might be assaulting a suspect, to taking out your phone and videotaping an arrest. Courts have for the most part upheld those examples as legal expressions of free speech.

What is the standard for annoying someone? Some people are annoyed just by someone else’s presence. Some people can be annoyed just when they’re having a bad day.

We certainly believe these public servants deserve the respect of the public. But they’re not entitled to it. How much will the threat of arrest discourage people from legitimately criticizing public servants? Chances are, a lot.

In another case of citizens being threatened with their freedom for exercising their right to free speech, two University of Connecticut students were arrested by campus police last month and charged under a state statute that prohibits “ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.” The two students were shouting racial slurs outside student apartments while walking home one night.

They each face up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine. The arrest occurred 10 days after their drunken game allegedly occurred.

They didn’t incite a riot or direct their comments at anyone in particular. They didn’t say them in the context of a situation in which they could cause others harm. They just said their vulgar and disgusting comments out loud. Someone heard them, security cameras caught them on tape and they might go to jail.

Last year, a man in New Hampshire was arrested for writing a comment on a news organization’s website accusing the police chief of covering for a corrupt officer. The arrest fell under the state’s criminal defamation law, which makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally and falsely disparage another person, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

How would you feel if you wrote a letter to the editor critical of someone or something, and the day it appears in the paper, an officer shows up on your doorstep with a warrant for your arrest? Would you continue to speak your mind and attach your name to it? That’s the danger.

In 23 states around the country, there are laws that make it a crime to say mean things about people, according to the ACLU.

We certainly don’t support racist or hateful language or bullying or any kind of discrimination. And people have every right to be angry and offended at the perpetrators of this speech. In the UConn case, the college has every right to punish the two students with suspension or expulsion for violating school rules on civility.

But we should draw the line at depriving citizens of their freedom for saying something that someone else finds offensive.

Some have even begun to challenge the premise behind so-called hate crime laws, which adds the element of thought and speech to punishment for a crime. Prosecutors traditionally don’t have to provide a motive to establish someone’s guilt for a crime. Should we open that door? If you’re the victim of an assault, for instance, does it really matter to you what the person thought before they assaulted you?

The opportunities for viewing speech as offensive are broad and highly subjective, and therefore open to vastly different manners of interpretation.

We as Americans need to respect people’s right to express themselves, even when we find that expression offensive. Being a racist jerk shouldn’t be against the law, as tempting at it might be to make it so.

Otherwise, we risk becoming like totalitarian regimes such as China and North Korea and Iran and Syria and Sudan and Russia — where speaking out against authority or making comments that could be interpreted as offensive can get individuals locked away for life, or worse.

Arresting American citizens solely for the words they say or write is the first step on that path.

Let’s not allow ourselves to go down it.

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