Pawlenty’s odious plan to muzzle protesters

To help defray the costs on police and the court system, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has asked Minnesota judges to seek restitution from protesters arrested for civil disobedience. Such a practice would have a chilling effect on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free assembly. Judges throughout Minnesota must ignore the governor’s plea.

Pawlenty’s plan seems to be little more than political gamesmanship. It is reprehensible that while some commit violent crimes, Pawlenty has singled out those engaging in political participation as committing a particularly pernicious offense. The cynical might say the only explanation for this logical dissonance is a politically-biased attempt to silence the voices of dissent. But the courts do not exist only to enforce the political will of the majority. Indeed, it is the voice of the minority which demands special defense. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, “(W)e should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.” We hope the Minnesota courts will remember this admonishment even if Pawlenty has forgotten it.

Distressingly, the plan would make civil disobedience – a long-standing protest tactic – too costly for many poorer Americans to contemplate. It would violate equality precepts to give richer Americans the freedom to speak while effectively limiting the rights of poorer Americans. Granted, merely seeking compensation from arrested protesters might not be unconstitutional, it certainly would deter people from expressing their views. Constitutional rights must not to be set aside in times of national crisis. That is exactly when they matter most.

In any case, the plan could cost Minnesota taxpayers more than it saves. As retired Hennepin County District Judge J. Bruce Hartigan noted: “Let’s say I’m a protester. I get together with a bunch of protesters and we go out and get arrested. We get in front of a judge. The judge orders restitution. We say no. We don’t pay it. We’ll all just go to jail and spend more of the governor’s money.”

The sad fact is that beleaguered police departments in Minnesota do need more money. However, using people who are expressing their right to free speech to raise additional monies violates the spirit of the First Amendment. If the people of this state prefer well-funded police departments then we need to demand that government provide the appropriate funding and not rely on Americans exercising their right to free speech.