Last month University of Florida starting middle linebacker, Antonio Morrison, was arrested for barking at a police dog. Within days, the video of the arrest and comments about the incident were national news. Fortunately, the state attorney’s office in Alachua County declined to file charges and all the charges against Antonio Morrison were dismissed.
With this backdrop comes a recent poll showing that the majority of college-age youths believe that we in the United States have too much freedom of speech and First Amendment freedoms. Although polls can be skewed and depending on how the question is asked, a specific result can be had, the fact that a majority of youths feel this way, regardless of the question asked, is startling. The question needs to be asked, would these same youths have felt that there was justification for the arrest and prosecution of Antonio Morrison for barking at a police dog? Based upon the comments and feedback on the internet and blogosphere, it appears that a vast majority of not only the youth of America, but all of the citizens of the United States feel that the arrest and prosecution of Antonio Morrison would be ludicrous.
The charges were not dropped against Antonio Morrison because of his First Amendment rights to bark. Rather, they were dropped against him because the State determined that he did not have malicious intent when he barked at the police dog. But on a pure First Amendment basis, the charges also needed to be dropped. Do we really want to live in a country where no matter how stupid it may be, barking at a police dog is a crime? Is that truly the level of freedoms we wish not to have?
Case law over the years have upheld citizen’s rights to use profanity and other derogatory terms against police officers. Other case law has allowed disparaging comments to be made against public and governmental officials, and of course “fuck the draft” has also been determined to be Constitutionally protected. The reason for this is that in a free society, the citizens have a right to protest against the government and express their displeasure with those in government. Expression is certainly different than violence and as the old adage says, sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me.
If one has the right to disparage a police officer, certainly one should have the right to disparage the police dog. Antonio Morrison’s barking may not have been a disparagement to the dog, but may have been a compliment. After all, which one of us speaks barkese?
Yes, the preceding comment is ridiculous. But so is the arrest of someone for barking at a police dog.
So back to those youths that believe that we have too many First Amendment freedoms, where would you draw the line on the rights of the citizens? The problem with drawing the line is that all of us have a different line to draw. The problem with drawing the line is that certain circumstances cross over that line and the line always needs to be moved. We, as a country, are founded on freedom on speech. Yes, we have drawn the line at “crying fire in a crowded movie theater” or giving military movements in a time of war. But by and large as a society, we do everything we can not to draw that line.
Just recently at one of our First Amendment Lawyers’ Association conventions, we had Professor Burton Caine of Temple University speak. He asked us to fill out a questionnaire. There was only one question on the questionnaire and that was, in essence, “where would you draw the line as to what speech is protected and what speech is not?” Even in this organization where all of us have dedicated our lives to freedom of speech, there still is not a total consensus on where the line should be drawn. The only consensus was that drawing any line allows for another line to be drawn restricting more and more speech.
So again, to the youths of today, never complain that there is too much freedom of speech. Never complain that others are abusing that right to speech. As long as others, in your opinion, have the right to abuse their freedom of speech rights, then your freedom of
speech rights will be protected. Once others freedom of speech rights are taken away, yours are next.