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Teaching the First Amendment

All of us are indebted to Dylan Bloom and the five other SOU students for challenging the university’s unconstitutional restriction on free speech. I say all of us, because it’s important that public property remain open to First Amendment exercise. So important, in fact, that if University officials haven’t embodied that principle in school policy by the time this column is published, I shall personally come onto campus and leaflet and defy arrest.

As established in federal jurisprudence, the principle is simple and reasonable. Public property belongs to the public and thus is open to non-commercial speech as long as the exercise doesn’t interfere with the primary purpose of the property. We can’t go into SOU classrooms and we can’t impede traffic in the open areas and we can’t be too noisy. But any of us can stand in the open areas and express our views.

Regarding the importance of this rule, I’ll quote the news release Peace House issued when we were teaching it to postal officials and the police in Central Point in 2012 (much of this was published in the Mail Tribune on October 3; the statements in single quotes were mine):

“One [issue] is that those who run public agencies must obey the rules that are promulgated to govern their conduct. ‘It is unfortunate that sometimes people who are supposed to be public servants act like autocrats. When they do, they must be taught that Americans are ruled by law, not by personal dictate.’

“The other issue is the preservation of opportunities for ordinary people to espouse their views. ‘Most of us cannot afford to pay to communicate our views. Traditionally people have depended on public spaces such as sidewalks, parks, and the grounds of public facilities to distribute their printed messages. It doesn’t matter whether you are a tea partier, an Occupier, a Jehovah’s Witness, or a candidate for city council, you have a stake in asserting this crucial First Amendment right.’”

Here’s the context of that news release. On Tax Day that year our volunteers distributed leaflets outside several valley post offices pointing out how much of the income tax dollar was devoted to war. Uniquely, our volunteer at Central Point was ordered off the premises under threat of arrest.

In September I got around to challenging this illegal exercise of authority. First I tried to educate the officials, asking them to read their own regulations governing the matter. They refused, so I began leafleting on the walkway outside. They called the police. I explained the situation and the law to the two officers who came. They were polite and listened, but ultimately they issued me a citation for trespassing, upon which I left, as we had agreed.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert refused to prosecute, being more devoted to upholding the law than supporting those in authority even when they’re wrong (which is often not the case with DAs). So I returned to the Central Point post office and leafleted unchallenged.

In 1982 I spent five days in the Baton Rouge city jail teaching the postmaster there the same lesson. This past Tax Day I had to teach it to the postmistress in Phoenix. On that occasion, the police she summoned listened to me, perhaps because there was a Channel 5 camera present, and they urged her to call the USPS legal office in Portland, which told her exactly what I had tried to tell her. She wasn’t happy, but she complied.

I conclude with the motto of the American Civil Liberties Union: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.