Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Free Speech and Irony

Only in America -- or perhaps only in New York City:

A man was arrested in New York only days before we celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. His alleged crime? Reciting the words of the First Amendment in a public place.

The arrested performance artist goes by the name of Reverend Billy (real name: Bill Talen) and is well-known to those who follow street theatre in the Big Apple.

According to the Associated Press,

Talen, 57, has spent years using his mock persona as a fire-and-brimstone evangelist to rail against consumer culture — what he portrays as the Disneyfication of Manhattan. He was arrested this year on misdemeanor trespassing charges for protesting at a Starbucks; that case is pending.

His latest run-in with the law began after he turned up to support people gathering in Union Square last Friday for the monthly Critical Mass bike ride asserting cyclists' rights.

The NYPD has aggressively policed the rides, arguing that they can interfere with traffic and threaten public safety. Advocates for Critical Mass have accused police of infringing on the riders' constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly.

The video shows Talen preaching the "44 beautiful words of the First Amendment" to a visibly annoyed congregation of police commanders huddled a few feet away. At one point, an officer approaches and warns him that his sermon is breaking the law.

"What's the law?" Talen asks.

"Harassment," the officer answers.

When Talen persists, another officer comes up behind him and slaps on handcuffs. When being put in a police van, the satirist shouts, "We have a right to peaceful assembly!"

Talen was held overnight before being released without bail. A criminal complaint alleges he harassed police officers by approaching them and "repeatedly shouting at such officers through a non-electric bullhorn."

It did not take long for somebody to post the video cited in the AP report to YouTube. Judge for yourself whether Reverend Billy deserved his treatment at the hands of the NYPD:

For the record, here are the words of the First Amendment the Constitution, which Reverend Billy and his co-activists were so vigorously reciting:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
If I'm not mistaken, Reverend Billy was one of the guest speakers at the Virginia Film Festival a few years ago, and I remember vocally disagreeing with his views about economics and society during one of the screenings. Whatever his misguided positions on free enterprise might be, he has my support in his colorful efforts to protect our civil liberties.

No comments: