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Hijacking Free Speech

By Sheila Kennedy on October 13, 2014 in Civic Blog
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Indiana_State_Police_cruiserRecently, a Indiana State Trooper was sued for proselytizing a woman he’d stopped for speeding. The Indianapolis Star has the story.

Not surprisingly, our homegrown theocrats saw nothing wrong with this.

Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said that although the traffic stop might not have been the best time to quiz someone about faith, he questioned whether a police officer should lose his right to free speech because he is wearing a badge.

“I have people pass out religious material all the time. Mormons come to my door all the time, and it doesn’t offend me,” Clark said. “(This case) might not be the most persuasive time to talk to someone about their faith, but I don’t think that a police officer is prohibited from doing something like that.”

Let’s try this slowly, so that even folks like Micah can understand: when people are acting in their individual capacities, they have free speech (and free exercise) rights. When they are acting on behalf of government–when they are what lawyers call “state actors”–the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits them from using their governmental authority to impose their religious beliefs on others.

That’s why a sectarian prayer from the Speaker’s Podium at the Statehouse violates the Establishment Clause, but a group of legislators voluntarily praying in the back of the chamber or on a street corner is protected by both the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of that same Amendment.

When you are acting as a private citizen, you can pray or proselytize to your heart’s content.

When you are acting as a representative of the government of all the people, you can’t.

It isn’t rocket science.

A4_1_10_SheilaKennedySheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy. This post was originally published at sheilakennedy.net on October 8, 2014 and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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