Free speech twofer

Detroit Police Officer John Bennett started off by creating a Web site critical of the chief who ran his department, and then expanded his blog salvos to include the administration of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Bennett, who joined the department 1996, kept on plugging away, even after his online attacks led to suspension without pay and attempts by the department to fire him outright.

He fought back, claiming he had a First Amendment right to be critical of the chief, the mayor or any other city official.

For Nancy Goedert, Victor Kittila and other metro area activists, the issue involved being able to stand on a street corner in Ferndale and hold signs encouraging passing motorists to honk their horns if they supported peace.

When Ferndale authorities tried to quell the weekly protests by issuing tickets to both protesters holding signs and drivers honking in support, the ACLU of Michigan stepped in to defend the free speech rights of those being harassed by the cops.

In both cases, the constitutionally protected right to speak out critically of public officials in powerful positions — be it the mayor of a city or the president of the United States — was reaffirmed.

The underlying lesson, though, is that we can't take these rights for granted. If we don't fight for them continually, then they will be eroded. Government employees can be cowed into keeping quiet when they see abuses occur. Citizens can be coerced into putting down their signs and watching silently as people continue to die in a needless war.

Going along is easier than bucking the system. Which is why we should lionize those with the strength of belief and gumption to stand up and be counted, no matter how powerful the forces opposing them may be.

As Bennett told News Hits: "What happened with me shows that David can take on Goliath and win."

Bennett's troubles began in 2003, when he launched, a blog critical of then Chief Jerry Oliver. Bennett was suspended, first with pay, and then without. After Oliver resigned, Bennett renamed the blog Detroituncovered and began focusing on the transgressions of Mayor Kilpatrick and members of his administration. When whistleblower lawsuits were filed against the city and the mayor by other cops, Bennett was all over the issue.

The recent disclosure of text messages that indicate Kilpatrick lied under oath in that lawsuit helps validate Bennett's ongoing criticism of the mayor, says the cop. After taking his case to the Michigan Employee Relations Commission and winning there, and then taking on the city in state court after his victories in front of MERC were appealed, Bennett finally returned to work last week. The experience of putting his uniform back on after being out of it for more than four years and stepping back inside police headquarters was a bit "surreal," says Bennett. But the handshakes and congratulations he received from fellow officers eased his transition back. According to Bennett, though, the city still hasn't addressed the issue of back pay. An arbitrator, he says, has ruled that he's owed a salary for all the time he's been off work, but it looks like some more wrangling may be required before he actually gets the money.

Meanwhile, Bennett says he's going to phase out his blog — not because he fears some new retaliation, but because he has something else in mind. He's planning to make a run for Detroit City Council in 2009.

"I've been pointing out problems with the city for the past five years," he says. "Now it's time for me to offer some solutions."

It seems fitting that Bennett's return to work came during the same week that U.S. Judge Denise Page Hood delivered an opinion upholding the right of peace activists to stage protests in the city of Ferndale.

Six years ago people began gathering at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Nine Mile Road on Monday nights to protest the war in Iraq. Some held signs urging passing motorists to hit their horns if they too wanted peace. Authorities claimed that the protesters were a safety hazard, and that motorists who honked support were violating a state law that says car horns are only supposed to be used in an emergency.

Some tickets were passed out. And then lawyers working with the ACLU of Michigan came to the defense. They argued in federal court that the protests and the honking were protected speech. Judge Hood agreed.

"There's no evidence this causes a safety problem," said the judge. The city's actions, she declared, were "unconstitutional."

Hood's ruling comes at an important time. The Bush administration's disregard for the Constitution has been well-documented, and the so-called war on terrorism has been used to justify an assault on rights previously considered sacrosanct. Hood's affirmation of the right to protest helped restore — "at least a little bit" — Kittila's belief that the courts can be counted on to protect us from tyranny.

But the real bulwark against oppression can be found in people like Bennett, Kittila and Goedert themselves, who take a stand when illegal attempts are made to stifle their voices.

"I am thrilled that the judge has confirmed our right to peacefully protest the war with these signs," Goedert, a member of the group Raging Grannies, said after the court victory. "It just goes to show that as Americans we cannot take our rights for granted and we must stay vigilant to protect them."

That's a message everyone needs to not just hear, but to heed.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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