We Americans like to wrap ourselves in the U.S. Constitution as if it were a parchment blanket. We like this – except when someone else wraps themselves in it for reasons we dislike.
At the heart of the United States and our democracy is this: Our Constitution protects ideas we gladly support, as well as those ideas we may find reprehensible.
Two people in the news in Iowa this month illustrate this legal fact of life. One is a 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran from Calhoun County. The other is a 13-year-old girl from Waterloo.
Both ran afoul of the law for exercising their right to freedom of speech – a right contained in the First Amendment to that Constitution. A common thread in these two situations is that both involve law enforcement officers.
The facts in these two cases should cause government officials and others who are not fully conversant with the principle of free speech to turn these two unfortunate situations into what parents would call a “teachable moment.”
No one disputes the need for law enforcement, and no one should disagree that the job of law officers is incredibly difficult these days.
But there is a world of difference between what occurred in Calhoun County and Waterloo and the high-pressure, life-and-death decisions law officers sometimes have to make.
See if you don’t agree:
Homer Martz was arrested at his home near Somers by Calhoun County deputy sheriffs for flying the United States flag upside down beneath a Chinese flag. There was a note on his flag pole that read, “In China, there is no freedom, no protesting, no due process. In Iowa? In America?”
Martz’s flag display was a form of protest against the Iowa Utility Board’s decision this year to permit Dakota Access LLC to begin constructing the Bakken oil pipeline near his house.
According to Martz, the deputies came onto his property two weeks ago and took down the two flags. The officers then knocked on his door and handed him the flags. “They said, ‘You can’t do this. We have a statute,’” Martz told a reporter later.
Martz took the flags from the deputies and then went back and ran them up the flag pole again. That’s when he was arrested and taken to the jail in Rockwell City.
Martz was charged with violating an Iowa law that, when enacted by the Legislature, made it a misdemeanor to publicly “mutilate, deface, defile or defy, trample upon, cast contempt upon, satirize, deride or burlesque, either by words or act” the flags of the United States and Iowa.
Calhoun County Sheriff William Davis and the two deputies, and County Attorney Tina Meth Farrington, too, all failed to recognize that freedom of speech – the freedom to express views that some people might find objectionable – is one of the foundations upon which the United States was established.
Davis, Farrington and the deputies also failed to remember that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice said flag burning and damaging the flag are protected forms of freedom of speech. They also failed to remember that in December 2014 a federal judge in Des Moines struck down Iowa’s flag-desecration law for the same reason.
After learning about the 2014 ruling, Farrington asked last week that the charge against Martz be dismissed. And it was.
The Calhoun County officials aren’t the only ones who failed to fully understand the legal concept of freedom of speech.
Waterloo police officer Timothy Everett is learning that lesson – although his lesson will end up costing his employer an as-yet-undisclosed amount of money.
Everett and the Waterloo Police Department were sued by the family of a 13-year-old girl who was taken to the ground and handcuffed after she refused to tell Everett her full name. The incident began when Everett sped past the girl in his patrol car and she yelled “Slow down!”
Everett made a U-turn and drove back to confront the girl.
Police Chief Daniel Trelka told the Associated Press that the officer made an “honest mistake” because of inadequate training. He said his officers now have been instructed that they should not arrest people who won’t give their names.
Of course, that practice is illegal without other criminal activity being involved. And yelling at a speeding police officer is not a crime.
Democracy in the United States is strong not because government officials force the people to be patriotic or force them to view matters as the officials would like. Our democracy is strong because people have the right to express their ideas and views that others may disagree with.
This applies to views that offend the sensibilities of sheriff’s deputies in northwest Iowa, police officers in northeast Iowa or any of us in between, including our governor, our lawmakers or even the president of the United States.
by Randy Evans
Reprinted from the Bloomfield Democrat