We live in Maryland, the Free State. And among the Free State’s most cherished freedoms are free speech and free assembly. The Maryland Declaration of Rights provides that “every man has a right to the legislature for the redress of grievances in a peaceable and orderly manner,” and “that every citizen of the state ought to be allowed to speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects.”
Our state government takes these constitutionally guaranteed freedoms very seriously — sometimes.
For instance, flash back to July 2008, when it was first revealed that Maryland State Police, working undercover, surveilled and infiltrated several protest groups over a 14-month period in 2005 and 2006. Undercover state cops attended outdoor demonstrations and some organizational meetings of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Committee to Save Vernon Evans, Pledge of Resistance and others.
After the ACLU uncovered the surveillance activity, all hell broke loose. Newspaper editorials, Common Cause, the ACLU and liberal columnists all weighed in vigorously condemning this trampling of basic American freedoms.
“For undercover police officers to spend hundreds of hours entering information about lawful political protest activities into a criminal database is an unconscionable waste of taxpayer dollars,” thundered the ACLU of Maryland.
“Protecting the individual liberties of our citizens is critical to preserving our democracy and the public trust in our law enforcement agencies,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley, as he appointed former U.S. prosecutor Stephen Sachs to review the matter and as the state legislature opened its own investigative hearings.
Of course, all this liberal outrage was mostly politically motivated. The state police surveillance was conducted by MSP superintendent Col. Tim Hutchins while Bob Ehrlich, a Republican, was governor. Anticipating a 2010 Ehrlich vs. O’Malley rematch, the Democrats and the media worked overtime in 2008 to hang “spygate” around Ehrlich’s neck.
“It is very troublesome that law enforcement would brand as a ‘security threat group’ law-abiding people whose only offense was dissenting from Governor Ehrlich’s views,” charged Common Cause.
“If you want to surrender your liberties to tyrannical government, vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2010,” railed a liberal Democrat blogger.
Of course, smearing Ehrlich meant downplaying the fact that O’Malley’s state police chief and the Sachs Commission both agreed that the surveillance was not illegal. Nor was Gov. Ehrlich ever aware of it, according to Col. Hutchins.
Curiously, much of the surveillance occurred in Baltimore while O’Malley was mayor, and much of the surveillance intel was shared with city police, who were fully aware of the covert operation. But O’Malley says the city police never briefed him about it while he was mayor.
But hey, even if politically motivated, defending our freedoms is good, right? Yes, except for the flipside, politically-motivated redistricting of those same freedoms. I’m talking about the old double standard, playing favorites with freedoms based on whether we agree with the protester’s agenda or not.
Blatant examples include the different treatment given tea party protesters versus Occupy Wall Street protesters. Or, the different treatment given Rush Limbaugh’s obnoxious comments versus Bill Maher’s even more obnoxious comments. (Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., says Maher’s nasties are OK because he’s a comedian.) Do you see the difference? Neither do I.
OK, now fast-forward to last week, when fewer than a dozen anti-tax protesters drove around the State House honking their horns as lawmakers inside were busy raising taxes. Capitol police quickly shut down the protest and issued $60 tickets to drivers for “using a horn in a nonemergency situation.”
Funny, I don’t recall any shutdowns or tickets when thousands of teachers blocked the State House steps using bullhorns to demand more money, or when thousands of labor union members demanded higher taxes. Or, when the environmentalists, or the pro-choice crowd, or the anti-death penalty folks demonstrated.
And during the next election, when roadside candidates disrupt traffic by waving signs encouraging motorists to honk their horns, let’s see how many $60 tickets get issued.
But if you think honking horns is a close call, consider this: 18 anti-abortion protesters just won a $385,000 settlement against the Maryland State Police who shut down their peaceful 2008 Harford County roadside protest and ordered them to leave the county.
When the anti-abortion protesters persisted, they were arrested, strip-searched and locked up in jail for 12 hours. When the protesters sued, a federal judge ruled that their free-speech rights had been “unquestionably restricted” by the state police.
But, because the rights trampled here belong to pro-lifers during a Democratic governor’s administration, there were no angry editorials, no special investigations, no comments from the governor, no ACLU, no Common Cause and no legislative hearings.
Just a double standard.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is email@example.com.