Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Arrested at Biden Event

Photo by John Fletcher, Asheville Citizen-Times

By M. Hunt

On Tuesday, October 2 my wife Edie and I went to the campus of UNCA with a sign that said, “Abortion Hurts Women.”  VP Joe Biden was scheduled to campaign at the Justice Athletic Center.   My purpose in going was simply to take a stand against abortion with a truth that is difficult to rebut, one that should be a concern of politically liberal people

When we arrived on campus we drove around trying to decide where to be.  Edie dropped me off in front of the cafeteria so I could talk with the six or eight Romney supporters and anti-Obama/Biden protestors.  The area there is a longstanding “free speech zone.”  The protestors were not happy about being so far away from the event—the Justice Center was about three blocks away.  I decided to go down there to see if I could persuade police to let me stay and, if so, I’d call the other protestors to join me.  I noted the phone number of one of the protestors, a Romney supporter and also a student at UNCA.

Edie then dropped me near the Justice Center with my sign.  I stood on the sidewalk near the UNCA Bulldog mascot statue and the media trucks.  I was there a few seconds only when I noticed a man who appeared to be Secret Service walk down next to me and beckon to a police officer across the road with his finger.

My argument to the police was that the press and I both were present under the auspices of the First Amendment.  I did not prevail in convincing them that I had a right to be there on the sidewalk of a public university.   I did say, “If a Secret Service agent tells me to move, I will move.”  No Secret Service agent did so.  The one person who appeared to be Secret Service refused to identify himself as such, saying, “We’re not discussing any security arrangements we may or may not have.”

The police told me that where I was standing was a “secure area.”  I replied that they should allow the protestors to be there.  I offered to be searched.  Video from the Asheville Citizen-Times that I found later shows the Biden motorcade passing right by the location and moving toward the parking spaces that had been taped off.

The campus police chief arrived, talked with me, and then consulted with someone on the phone, probably an administrator.  He came back to me to say that it was University policy not to allow me to stand there with a sign.  When I respectfully declined to move to the designated free speech area, I was arrested, handcuffed, taken to jail, and charged with second degree trespassing.    After two hours of processing and waiting, I was fingerprinted and released on a signature bond.  First court appearance is set for December 4.

I hope people realize that my sign and its message probably had little to do with why I was told to move and why I was arrested.  I think anyone with any sign would have received the same treatment.  It’s likely that in those minutes prior to the motorcade arriving, the police would have prevented any non-law enforcement people from being there.  There also is the issue of trespassing on public property.  Yes, it was public property and yes it was a sidewalk, but it was on a college campus and the law for this kind of public property is somewhat different than it is in the rest of Asheville.  The difference is that the priority of the campus is serving students and university programs and not the public at large.  The general public does have access to the university, but the university is within its legal rights to limit or prohibit access that interferes with or disrupts university functions.

The problem is when the university suppresses free speech activity that does not interfere or disrupt university functions.   This unjustified suppression is common on campuses and not only of the general public but of a university’s own students.  Keeping students within a small artificial “zone” is a prime example.  The zone has an upside for non-university people in that they can just show up without notice, and by the way, without alarming campus police.  But it has a downside because it implies that the rest of the campus, the outdoor spaces, is off limits.

I have been engaged in free speech activity on perhaps 50 campuses across the eastern United States and as far west as Oklahoma and South Dakota.  I have seen numerous loud and raucous protests—against the display I helped bring.  Protest members are students and faculty as well as non-university people.   In each of these cases, the university allowed the protests to proceed, deciding that they did not interfere with the functions of the university, in fact they understood that the protests augmented them!  They encouraged debate and the interchange of ideas.  They encouraged social activism.

Last year at a major university in Virginia we set up our large prolife display (eighteen 4 x 8 panels) at a busy foot traffic intersection.  The university gave two spots for counterdemonstrations, one on each side of us—a gay rights group fairly close, and a Planned Parenthood group about a block away.   The police kept the PP group at a distance so to minimize conflict, as they thought.  We have enough experience to know that protestors near the display only increase the attention it gets, so we never encourage the university to keep protestors away, unless, of course, they put up large sheets so others cannot see  our signs. It has happened. By the second day, most of the PP and pro-abortion-choice students were in right in front of our display engaged in multiple, long and sometimes intense conversation.

In short, universities limit educational opportunities when they unnecessarily suppress free speech as does UNCA and also, by the way, AB-Tech.

One thing I told the campus police.  I had as much right to stand on the sidewalk in that location with my sign as Vice President Joe Biden had to campaign for himself and President Obama inside the Justice Center.  We both were using public university facilities for private purposes.  One difference is that Biden did disturb university functions.

Biden and the general public were going inside and the university should have made provision for me and the general public to express our opposition to Biden and his agenda, express it directly to those who support him.  There is no legitimate reason why they could not have set up a secure protest area in proximity to the Justice Center.

My stand that lead to the arrest represents a simple concept--that I as a citizen of the United States have certain rights.  I have a fundamental right of free speech.  I have a right to be on public property if I have not done anything that revokes that right.  I did not disrupt any university function.  I was not a security risk to anyone.   Consider this, what does it say about our nation when a person, even in the special circumstances at UNCA, is arrested for simply holding a sign on a sidewalk?

Oh, and by the way, abortion hurts women.  What does that say about our nation?

1 comment:

M.H............................ said...

The short version is that the trespassing charge was dismissed