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The freedom of dissent

03/17/03 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) The actions of Montpelier police during a recent protest rally disturb commentator Allen Gilbert.

(Gilbert) We all need to pay attention to how Montpelier police handled a recent protest in that city. Officers photographed demonstrators as they marched in an anti-war rally. The police said that they needed the photographs to help them identify lawbreakers if violence broke out. There was no violence. But police said they were going to keep the photos anyway -- just in case they needed them later to identify troublemakers and criminals. Police also apparently contacted a photographer from the local newspaper to see what photos he had and if they could obtain them.

There was a huge public outcry. Irate citizens charged that the police were suppressing civil liberties. Petitions demanded that the photos be destroyed. The local paper's op-ed pages filled with criticism of the police department. Letter writers who went out of their way to identify themselves as Republicans who had fought in World War II questioned the police's actions.

A week after the story broke, the police relented. In a highly unusual move, the police said via a lengthy Page 1 statement in the local paper that they never intended to use the photographs for anything other than legitimate police purposes. They announced that they had decided to destroy the photographs. They didn't want the community to get the wrong idea about their intentions.

Lost on the police was acknowledgment of how far they had gone in casting a severe chill on citizens' right of assembly. Police had exhibited no inherent appreciation for, or understanding of, this basic freedom, which is identified in our Bill of Rights. Only community pressure forced that appreciation and understanding.

I'm among those who find the police department's actions appalling. I think that the city's chief, Douglas Hoyt, has exhibited an egregious lack of judgment. The community was right to rise in protest. We're not talking about tearing up parking tickets. We're talking about protecting basic civil liberties. The chief failed the test.

Our country has entered a very dangerous time. In trying to protect ourselves from enemies without, we are searching for enemies within. We are even targeting our sons and daughters as possible enemies -- even though we may shortly ask them to fight the war that we, old men and old women, have planned and promised. To deprive -- no, strike that -- to chill the right of young people to express their opinion about a life-or-death issue such as war is inimical to the vision of this country -- the vision laid out by the Founders, the vision protected by the thousands of Vermonters who have served in every war from the Revolution to Desert Storm, and the vision held by each of us when we say that we're proud to be Americans.

We take for granted the rights enumerated in our Constitution. We can no longer do that. Our rights, and the rights of our children and grandchildren, can be quickly abrogated, even by well-intentioned local police departments. It is the small steps -- steps that often seem reasonable - that lead towards unacceptable suppression of basic freedoms.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.
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