The Right to Be Rude to a Cop - Harvey A. Silverglate

There's a First Amendment right to be rude to a cop.

The now-infamous Gates story has gone through the familiar media spin-cycle: incident, reaction, response, so on and so forth. Drowned out of this echo chamber has been an all-too-important (and legally controlling) aspect: the imbroglio between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley has more to do with the limits (or breadth) of the First Amendment than with race and social class.

The issue is not how nasty the discourse between the two might have been, but whether what Professor Gates said--assuming, for argument's sake, the officer's version of events as fact--could by any stretch of both law and imagination constitute a ground for arrest for "disorderly conduct" (the charge leveled) or any other crime. Whether those same words could be censored on a college campus is a somewhat different--though related--question.

First, a quick recap. Gates returned to his Cambridge residence from an overseas trip to find his door stuck shut. With his taxi driver's assistance, he forced the door open. Shortly thereafter, a police officer arrived at the home, adjacent to the Harvard University campus--in my own neighborhood, actually--responding to a reported possible burglary.

Upon arrival, the officer found Gates in his home. He asked Gates to step outside. The professor initially refused, but later opened his door to speak with the officer. Words--the precise nature of which remains in dispute--were exchanged. Gates was arrested for exhibiting "loud and tumultuous behavior." The police report, however, in Sgt. Crowley's own words, indicates that Gates' alleged tirade consisted of nothing more than harshly worded accusations hurled at the officer for being a racist. The charges were later dropped when the district attorney took charge of the case.

It is not yet entirely clear whether there was a racial element to the initial decision by a woman on the street--working for Harvard Magazine, no less!--to call the police, although that is looking unlikely. It remains disputed whether Sgt. Crowley treated Professor Gates any differently than he would treat a white citizen in the same position. (In fact, if one accepts Crowley's claim that he dished out to Gates equal treatment under the law, this case stands as a dire warning to all citizens as to the dangers inherent in exercising one's constitutional right to free speech when in an exchange with a police officer--but more on that below.)

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Taking a Closer Look at the Stories Ignored by the Mainstream Media
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