By Kevin Shannahan/Opinion
Recent events remind me of an iconic painting from an American artist of an earlier era. The painting features a young man speaking at a town hall meeting. His clothing and hands are dirty from work and are a contrast to the white shirts, coats and ties worn by the other men in the painting. He is visibly poorer and younger than those around him. None of that matters. He is standing in the painting and is speaking without fear and with the confidence of a free man in a free nation, the equal under the law of anyone in that room. There is no police officer hovering in the background. The man in the painting is not looking worriedly over his shoulder afraid that the authorities will come should he say the wrong thing or be insufficiently obsequious to petty authority. When the painting was commissioned, America was locked in mortal combat with Nazi tyranny with the outcome far from certain. The painting is Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Freedom of Speech” and over the intervening 75 years remains the finest artistic interpretation of the First Amendment ever rendered.
I thought of Rockwell’s painting when I looked at the news and saw a video of a middle school teacher being forcibly removed from a school board meeting and subsequently arrested for having the unmitigated gall to question the propriety of a rather sizable raise for the district superintendent. I watched the whole video several times from start to finish, from her asking questions of the board through her being escorted out, handcuffed on the floor and being frog marched to a police car out in the parking lot. There was no outburst. There was no obscenity laced rant. No threats to anyone were uttered. There was no assault, at least not by her. The deputy marshal’s shouted order to “stop resisting!” was obviously for show, not borne out by the video and would be laughable were it not the basis for one of the craptastic charges for which she was arrested.
Make no mistake, that night’s events were an assault on our liberties as a free people and should be regarded as such. An arrest is a serious, life changing event where an armed agent of the state handcuffs you and takes you to jail. He or she may use force to effect this. You may not resist. If you have any kind of responsible job, you probably just lost it. Even if you are released later, the record will follow you for the rest of your life. At best, it will be an expensive hassle. At worst, it will morph into serious trouble. Taking that into account, do you still want to speak up at the meeting? Do you even want to go to the meeting? It is by merest chance that this ham-handed retaliation failed and so spectacularly backfired. Think what would have happened had there not been a news outlet taping the meeting and capturing the whole sordid mess on video. It would have been her word against the officer and board members. I think it would be a safe bet that she would find herself in a much more precarious legal position. A free press watching the government is a bulwark of liberty. In a small town in southern Louisiana, a schoolteacher and a reporter with a camera phone proved the 231 year old First Amendment still holds an overreaching government at bay. The Founding Fathers would have been proud.
Who was this troublemaker, this agent of anarchy who was such a threat to public order? A fellow citizen, a schoolteacher who had been selected as teacher of the year, no less, stood in a school board meeting, was recognized and expressed her opposition to the board giving a sizable raise to the district’s superintendent. That led to her removal from the meeting and arrest, an arrest I might add that took place out of sight in the hallway outside ot the meeting room. It would have worked had it not been for an alert reporter with a camera.
No citizen should fear his or her government. No governmental body should be able to pervert with impunity the legitimate police power of the state in order to retaliate against dissent. It destroys public trust in both the government and law enforcement. This is the United States of America, not Putin’s Russia!
Photo Courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum