When should we disrupt authority and when should we not? That was the question posed by the Maine Humanities Council last week for an event they hosted here in Portland. As a panelist I shared the ACLU’s perspective, which is centered primarily on governmental authority and particularly the instances where the government overreaches that authority and must be reined in.
To get the discussion flowing, I spoke about our active case against the Portland Police Department for an incident that occurred last year: While visiting from Bar Harbor, Jill Walker and Sabatino Scattoloni were arrested for observing and attempting to film an interaction between several police officers and a woman in downtown Portland. After being searched and interrogated without Miranda warnings and incarcerated until they could meet bail, the couple were charged with “Obstructing Government Administration” and obligated to hire a defense attorney.
Although the district attorney ultimately dropped the charges, their case is a classic instance of an overreach of government authority – in this case the violation of the public’s well-established right to observe and videotape the police, so long as they aren’t interfering with their work. It is also a great example of the personal sacrifices that are often required to bring an abuse of power to light.
Our legal cases usually involve people like Jill and Sabatino who have had their rights violated. In some cases they chose to put themselves in harm’s way to actively challenge a law that they saw as unjust. In others they were merely trying to go about their own business when an injustice was forced upon them unwillingly. But no matter the path, it takes tremendous courage to take the next step and stand up against any authority - particularly when it is backed by the power of the government - to demand justice.
Many fascinating discussions can flow from this basic question of when we should challenge authority and it was exciting to listen to other perspectives at last week’s “Disruption of Authority” event. More than anything, what I came away with was a renewed admiration for anyone who is willing to take that stand. We are privileged at the ACLU to interact with some of these people every day and to help them navigate the system in search of justice.
Folks who refuse to stay silent in the face of an abuse of power deserve a great cheer, as do those who refuse to go about their business when their constitutional rights are being denied. To all of you, kudos.