Trampling free speech

Local governments want a piece of the actionable

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In a surveillance society, it’s wise to watch your words. A careless, offhand remark on Facebook can be grounds for a sacking or even probable cause for arrest, just for speaking your piece.

Cameron B. D'Ambrosio, 18, of Methuen, Mass., made a tasteless post on the social-networking website shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing in April. The troubled teenager, who has had a few run-ins with the law, lapsed into an obscenity-laced rap tirade that included a reference to Boston. Fellow students saw the post and alerted school officials, who in turn alerted the Methuen police. Mr. D'Ambrosio was hauled away as though he were the third Tsarnaev brother. The family home got a rough and thorough search, but neither a bomb nor a bomber was found.

The cops explained that young Mr. D'Ambrosio was arrested for “disturbing verbiage,” whatever that is, on his Facebook site. “The student made terrorist threats,” said police. “These threats were in general and not directed toward another person or the school.” In other words, the usual harmless bloviation of a teenager looking to attract harmless attention. Nonetheless, he was threatened with 20 years in state prison for blowing off steam.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union observed that Mr. D'Ambrosio, an aspiring rap musician, would have been treated differently if he had be been a successful hip-hop artist, such as Ice T, Eminem, or any of the other artists on the Death Row record label, known for their violent lyrics. Bob Marley never tried to sing “I Shot the Sheriff” at a club in Methuen, and a good thing, too.

The young man sat without bail in a Methuen jail cell for more than a month. When Essex County prosecutors finally took the case to a grand jury, his neighbors, showing better judgment than the cops, declined to indict him. Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon stood by the arrest. “Several judiciary levels have confirmed the probable cause in this case as it has worked its way through the criminal justice system.” So it’s not just the feds. State and local officials want a piece of the actionable, too.

Last month, Johnny Cook, a school bus driver in Haralson County, Ga., was “flustered” after a day at work. He turned to Facebook to relay the sad tale of a middle-school child who told him that he had gone hungry because he was 40 cents short on his lunch card and that lunchroom attendants refused to extend credit. Outraged, Mr. Cook posted his cellphone number and told the school to let him know when a child runs short, and he would make up the difference. “As a taxpayer, I would much rather feed a child than throw [food] away,” he wrote. “I would rather feed a child than to give food stamps to a crackhead.”

The school superintendent demanded Mr. Cook apologize and pull down his posting. When he refused, he was fired. But it’s the superintendent, acting like a blockhead, who needs counseling.

These are more than just cases where local officials should have taken a deep breath before acting. These cases may be signs of bad things to come. As respect for the Constitution continues to diminish, City Hall bureaucrats will feel confident they’re not trampling free speech when they trample free speech. We should stand up for our rights, foremost among them the right to say what we think, while we still can.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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