Threats of excessive punishments


People who speak in public but want to avoid dealing with pesky questioners use two techniques. One is to say that they will not take any questions. But that would reveal that they are scared or cannot defend their position and few people choose to do that. What they sometimes say instead is that they have another engagement immediately after the allotted time for the event and then they speak so long as to fill up the time. But another tactic is to demand that people submit their questions in writing in advance to a moderator and then have the moderator select only the friendly ones.

I have seen these tactics used by politicians and other well-known figures. But what is disturbing is when that the practice is adopted by small local organizations to control debate. Take the case of what happened at the Baltimore County School district public meeting to discuss the adoption of the new Common Core State Standards that is causing concern to some parents and educators.

I don’t wish to get into the details of the particular issue but focus on how that district deals with public comments.

The parents’ questions had to be submitted prior to the event and no new questions would be discussed. This angered some residents who felt the need to ask tougher questions than those selected by superintendents.

It is ridiculous for a school board to adopt the evasive tactics of cowardly politicians in a public forum to discuss policies. But what was worse was what happened when one audience member deviated from the rules.

One parent, Robert Small, very respectfully tried to voice his concerns and was shut out from participating when a policeman forcefully removed him from the auditorium.

Mr. Small was arrested and charged with second degree assault of a police officer with a second charge of disrupting a school function. He faces 10.5 years in jail if found guilty.

You can watch what happened.

Does this man deserve 10.5 years in jail?

It reminds me of the famous “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” incident in which 21-year old University of Florida student Andrew Meyer who was tasered at a meeting at which John Kerry was speaking on September 17, 2007. Kerry continued to drone on from the podium even while there were screams of agony emanating from the victim in the aisles of the auditorium.

I have attended (and even run) public meetings where people in the audience spoke for too long or ramble from the point or are argumentative in their tone. It is hardly uncommon. That is part of the messiness of democracy and public participation and one learns to go with the flow.

There are ways to deal with such people. I remember when Obamacare was being discussed in Town Halls across the country prior to its adoption. Opponents, especially Tea Partiers, were attending these meetings in large numbers and dominating the public discussion with long tirades, often leading to shouting matches between supporters and opponents. I went to one such meeting at my university and the campus police was there, including its chief. Whenever someone seemed to be getting out of hand and there was a threat of rowdiness, he would personally go up to that person and quietly talk to him or her and defuse the situation. The meeting ended without any incident.

Usually, long–winded people who ignore requests from the chair to wrap it up will be shouted down by the rest of the audience. That is often the best and most effective way. If the rest of the audience does not do it, it usually means that the speaker has struck a chord with the audience and is reflecting genuine concerns. The thought of using security personnel to taser and/or forcibly eject a person who was only talking and then later charging them with an offense that carries jail penalties that exceed ten years is unconscionable.

And this practice of throwing the book at people over petty issues seems to be increasing especially with young people. Jonathan Turley writes about the case of a 15-year old student Christian Adamek who streaked at a football game. When he was told that he might be criminally charged and registered as a sex offender for what was a stupid prank, he committed suicide.

As Turley warns, it is often hard to pin down exactly what causes a suicide. But he does say that these kinds of excessive legal threats against students for stupid acts is growing and should be stopped.

It is hard to judge from the stories what emotional issues Christian may have been facing. However, the threats of criminal charges, and a sex offender listing, are ridiculous for a high school prank. We have seen a trend (here and here and here and here) of school officials criminalizing a wide range of conduct that was once treated matters for a sit down with parents and nothing more. It also reflects the seemingly exponential expansion of sex offender lists, which are increasingly put teenagers on a listing with lifelong burdens and stigma.

One of the subtle but serious side effects of the so-called ‘war on terror’ is that it has resulted in a public mindset that views even petty things as potentially serious matters worthy of throwing the full weight of the government at them. Once we have accepted that anyone who looks and sounds different might be a danger to the public, and that small amounts of liquids and shoes could be lethal weapons, and that agents of the government have the right to abuse us with impunity, that can spill over into condoning abuses of power that have nothing to do with national security and result in threatening people with serious punishments for what should be considered just petty offenses.

Comments

  1. says

    It is ridiculous for a school board to adopt the evasive tactics of cowardly politicians in a public forum to discuss policies. But what was worse was what happened when one audience member deviated from the rules.

    Actually that should be unsurprising. Why should the subordinates lower down avoid the techniques of the higher ranking monkeys? It’s how culture spreads.

    Does this man deserve 10.5 years in jail?

    Maybe. That depends on the hidden policies and procedures that are part of the internal social environment. “De facto” policy. The government’s tactic of scaring away unwanted pressure is a thing becoming more and more obvious. From the increased militarization of police, approaches designed to suppress (OWS), even up how whistleblowers are treated. Of course they will include dissident parents.

    If the rest of the audience does not do it, it usually means that the speaker has struck a chord with the audience and is reflecting genuine concerns.

    Maybe they are trying to prevent this very thing.

  2. smrnda says

    On the harsh punishments, I think it fits in with the false belief that things are always getting worse, and that harsh punishments must be put in place to prevent chaos. In reality, things are not worse.

  3. dmcclean says

    Once we have accepted that anyone who looks and sounds different might be a danger to the public, and that small amounts of liquids and shoes could be lethal weapons, and that agents of the government have the right to abuse us with impunity, …

    One of these things is not like the other ones, as the song goes.

    Small amounts of liquids could indeed be lethal weapons. Both in the implied context (as explosives aboard airliners), and in other contexts: poisons, infectious agents, radiation sources, caustic chemicals, possibly even cryogenic liquids under some circumstances.

    This wasn’t a liquid, as I believe it was a powdered salt, but it certainly was small, it killed several people and hurt dozens more, and you get the idea. If you insist on a liquid example, try Alexander Litvinenok (I’m linking to a footnote that is the source for the claim that the Po210 overdose he was given was in a cup of tea).

    I’m not an expert, but I expect that microliters could be lethal weapons under certain circumstances. Certainly milliliters. By the time you get to Dawkins’ deciliter of honey there are all sorts of possibilities.

    The rest of your sentence and it’s conclusion are valid, but this part is a near neighbor of Palin’s “fruit fly research in Paris, France” comment; it’s piling on the everything-government-does-is-ipso-facto-senseless bandwagon, which is already full enough. Or the “carbon dioxide is such a tiny fraction of the atmosphere!” crowd, as if small amounts of things can’t be harmful.

    Note that it doesn’t follow from “small amounts of liquids could be lethal weapons” that “the TSA security theater spectacle and all it’s indignities are necessary and well-implemented.” So you can’t use the contrapositive to argue that because the TSA is a joke and there are absurd abuses of power in the name of the “war on terror”, therefore small amounts of liquids can’t be lethal weapons.

  4. AsqJames says

    As Turley warns, it is often hard to pin down exactly what causes a suicide.

    That is true for any one specific suicide, however for those in grades 9-12 of public schools…

    16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey
    Source: CDC

    In other words, if your school has 300 kids in grades 9-12, chances are something like 50 of them have considered suicide in the past year. The more often a teacher/administrator brings law enforcement into a school discipline matter, the more likely it will be the trigger which causes one of those 50 to take that horrific next step.

    Such startling figures should obviously not be a school’s only concern (others will include maintaining discipline, the safety of all students, the educational impact on an individual, etc), but in my opinion it would be negligence for any school to either not know those statistics, or to not take them into consideration when determining appropriate disciplinary procedures/action.

  5. mnb0 says

    I don’t see any substantial difference between the story of Adamek and the arrest of Pussy Riot. To me it looks like the quality of American democracy is approaching Russian level.

  6. cafeeineaddicted says

    Yep. If you end up punishing littering and murder with the same penalty, don’t be surprised if your litterbugs become murderers and your murderers litterbugs.

  7. countryboy says

    Seems to me that the rise in excessive punishments roughly parallels the rise in the privatization of prison systems. The more that are incarcerated the higher the profits to the prison companies.

  8. richardrobinson says

    “Mr. Small was arrested and charged with second degree assault of a police officer with a second charge of disrupting a school function. He faces 10.5 years in jail if found guilty.”

    I don’t see where any assault against the police officer occurred. Was Small’s upper arm aggressively abrasive towards the police officer’s palm?

  9. thewhollynone says

    Trying to shut people up, and using harsh punishments to do it, is a poor way to handle the problem of nutcases taking over a public discussion. All it does is make martyrs out of malcontents. The Baltimore County school board missed an opportunity to call upon the skills of professional high school social studies teachers who conduct discussions every day during which ignorant and immature rabble-rousers (like Mr. Small) try to get attention by making outlandish statements. Whoever planned and conducted that school board meeting should have to go back to high school.

  10. Jockaira says

    RichardRobinson,

    Most states define assault as intentional touching of a person without his consent. Battery is further defined as a touching action intended to physically intimidate or injure another.

    Doing either to a police officer is considered a symbolic attack against society itself.

    There is no doubt that Mr Small touched the officer without his consent and that he intended to do just that. Mr Small’s intent was probably just to “stand his ground” against what he considered overly officious behaviour by the officer, but he could still be found guilty of assault simply on the evidence of the video.

    In my opinion both Mr Small and Mr Meyer displayed impolite and immature behaviour in response to requests to stifle it or leave. Perhaps assault is too heavy a charge. Based on the video evidence I consider a citation for disturbing the peace to be appropriate. If the miscreant resists the issuance of the citation then he should be subject to arrest for that charge and also for resisting arrest.

  11. wtfwhateverd00d says

    We should be aggressively charging prosecutors and cops that maliciously overcharge as clearly happened here given that in no way should Small’s behavior be construed as an assault.

    This btw, is another example of why captured and uploading uncensored video is so important to democracy even, and especially, in claimed cases of rape.

    (See the OU box lunch rape case that wasn’t)

  12. dmcclean says

    #11 seems right on the law, as I understand it. The penalty obviously is ridiculously disproportionate here, seems like even if he was convicted he would probably get probation, but it is silly that 10.5 years is even on the table.

    I wonder if it might be difficult to prove assault on a police officer in light of the fact that the person in question wasn’t wearing a police uniform but some sort of “SECURITY” shirt of the kind you usually see on private sector guards, and did not appear from the audio to identify himself as a police officer?

  13. Jockaira says

    Security personnel attendant at government meetings and sometimes college or school functions are frequently sworn as deputy or auxiliary police officers. It is prudent to assume such if one is considering making a scene. It is also prudent not to make a scene in the first place.

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