Free speech has its limits. There are freedoms we sacrifice within the First Amendment as a collective society. The Supreme Court has determined this in certain cases, such as the Miller v California ruling against obscene speech. Other exceptions of the First Amendment include refusing protections for child pornography ownership and production, a speech we see the purpose of outlawing. However, the relationship between the police forces and citizens proves to be a complicated one with the freedom of speech.
Garrett Epps, a constitutional law pundit, discusses the importance of a Supreme Court case currently in session, Nieves v Bartlett. In Alaska, an exchange happened between Sergeant Luis Nieves, a state trooper, and Robert Bartlett, who was attending Arctic Man festivities.
Arctic Man is the snowbird’s yacht week. It’s the event in Alaska that prepares the excuse for people to be sloshed, to ski and to scream all at the same time. It already sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? What could go wrong with thousands of people shotgunning beers off the slopes, commencing their week of blackouts and breakdowns? Arctic Man became an underage drinking gold mine. State troops began circulating the parameters of the event. Nieves approached Bartlett to ask him to put his beer keg inside of his RV. Bartlett did not respond. Things carried on. Later, another state trooper, Bryce Weight, begins questioning a man who had suspected to be underage at the event. Bartlett, then, intruded into the conversation, boastfully reminding the man that he did not need to talk to the authorities if he did not want to. He did not stop there. He continued to involve himself in the situation by telling Trooper Weight that he needed to consider that this boy was a minor and did not have the authority to talk to him without a guardian present. Trooper Weight suddenly became aggressive, shoving Bartlett and his burst of loquaciousness. Nieves grabbed Bartlett’s arm, pulled him away and ordered him to lie on the group eventually arresting Bartlett. They charged him on counts of disorderly conduct and resisting or interfering with arrest, and troopers described him as hostile, aggressive and combative in nature.
Allegedly, Nieves said to Bartlett, “Bet you wish you would have talked to me now.” What the Supreme Court has to decide now is the freedom citizens have in their speech towards law enforcement. It is not illegal to refuse questions from the police, but will talking back to them have a different legal consequence?
Although I am not exactly advocating for Bartlett’s boisterous brawl, I do believe the First Amendment protects his speech. Using disorderly conduct as a justification to suppress a citizen’s speech is too easy. If this was a retaliatory arrest based on no other probable cause other than Nieves disapproving of Bartlett’s approach in communicating with him, this could diminish the freedom of speech we all have if we have to limit ourselves even further when interacting with law enforcement.
As Epps writes, police officers have shot, killed and walked away without charges on the deaths of innocent Americans such as Michael Brown in Ferguson. The public eye has seen the fatal confrontation and dangers of a police officer’s protection. This Supreme Court ruling will set a precedent determining the freedom of speech relationship between the citizens and the cops. Hopefully, this time around the Roberts Court makes a decision that protects the people the law enforcement should be protecting.