In light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, that admonition seems as relevant today as it was when it was when it appeared on March 29, 1960 in a New York Times political advertisement directed at the Montgomery, Alabama police. Of course, it was that advertisement that gave rise to the celebrated ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).
The analogy to the events surrounding the killing of young Michael Brown and the famed First Amendment case is more apt than may first appear. How so? Well, let us start here: It is important to remember that the First Amendment victory in Sullivan emerged against the backdrop of intense racial strife. What is remarkable about the case is how it blended the liberty principle of the First Amendment with the equality principle of the Fourteenth Amendment to forge a landmark opinion. Perhaps at no other time in American history have the two been so wonderfully wed as to serve the high principles of both constitutional guarantees.
Know this: Racial injustice cannot endure the light of the First Amendment; police abuse cannot continue unabated when subjected to the scrutiny of a camera; and governmental indifference cannot persist when the citizenry assembles in a united front to oppose it. Put another way, the link between free-speech liberty and racial equality is vital to the health of our constitutional democracy.
Frank Pasquale’s recent post (“The Assault on Journalism in Ferguson, Missouri“) ably points out why citizens of all political stripes should be concerned about what has been going on in Ferguson. His sober post is a timely reminder of the importance of the First Amendment in the affairs of our lives, be they in Ferguson or Staten Island or elsewhere.
(CNN) – The New York City medical examiner’s office Friday confirmed what demonstrators had been saying for weeks: A police officer’s choke hold on a man being arrested for selling loose cigarettes killed him. (Aug. 2, 2014)
So, now may be the moment to reunite the liberty and equality principles. What does that mean? Among other things, it must mean this:
- The press — traditional and modern — must be free to continue to exercise its rights in a robust manner.
- Citizens should be able to freely exercise their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and protest.
- More transparency should be demanded of government, be it in matters concerning the investigation of the killing of Michael Brown or the need for police identification badges to be plainly visible.
- And demands must be made of state and local officials that clear and specific measures be taken to respect and protect the lawful exercise of any and all First Amendment rights.
To that end, press groups, civil rights and civil liberties groups, along with political and religious groups should seize this opportunity, borne out of tragedy, to reinvigorate our First Amendment freedoms employed in the service of racial justice. In that way, perhaps some of the admirably defiant spirit of New York Times v. Sullivan may find its way back into the hearts and minds of people of good will who refuse to sit silent while law-abiding citizens of Ferguson stagger through clouds of teargas.