Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New Jersey, the Jackboot State?

Maybe there’s some job requirement in New Jersey that requires cops or other government people with authority to be uninformed, uneducated, unacquainted and totally in the dark on the Freedom of Speech in our country.

“So you want to work for the government. Have you ever heard of the First Amendment?


“OK, you’re hired.”

How else do you rationalize seven cops arresting a couple citizens from a town hall meeting on Saturday, Jan. 19, in Middle Township, for protesting toll hikes?

Gov. Jon Corzine was scheduled to appear at the last of his four “town hall” meetings to pitch his plan to up tolls on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike in order to pay down state debt and repair roads.

Prior to Corzine’s arrival, some 10 toll increase opponents began passing out flyers and displaying signs that read “No toll hikes.” Mind you, the signs did not say “F... the Gov” or anything like that, just “No toll hikes.”

Two of these protesters were arrested for exercising their freedom of speech privileges. Steven Lonegan of Bogota, NJ, and Seth Grossman of Middle Township, were cuffed and charged with trespassing.

Were they endangering anyone? Acting rude in public? Disturbing the peace? Were they wild-eyed thugs chanting, “We’ll die before we pay higher tolls!” Well, no.

Lonegan was mayor for 12 years. Grossman is an attorney and former Atlantic City councilman. They were just there to protest a bad plan, a plan that they say will hurt people, including truckers.

When “Land Line Now” news anchor Reed Black pitched the story in yesterday morning’s news staff meeting, you could hear the collective clunk of jaws hitting the table.

By noon, Reed had contacted both Lonegan and Grossman and had recorded interviews with both.

As an editor here, one of the perks is that I get to read the unedited copy and hear the complete sound file on the interviews. While you get to read the cleaned-up, tightened-up version, I hear the whole thing. I even watched a tape of the arrest, posted on the Internet by someone who was there. Watch for yourself here.

Lonegan and Grossman told “Land Line Now” News Anchor Reed Black how they were told it was a “private” meeting. Private? Has the government reinvented vocabulary? A town meeting, scheduled by the state’s governor, paid for by taxpayers, is a public meeting. Period.

So here’s this guy, in a suit and long black winter coat, surrounded by seven officers. They asked what he was doing, and he said passing out flyers. They told him “the governor did not want” him handing out flyers.

Lonegan explained to the officers it was actually a “public” meeting, paid for by taxpayers. Lonegan told them it was his right to pass out flyers protesting the toll increases.

To cut to the chase, they cuffed him and put him in the patrol car, along with Seth Grossman. Both were detained for about an hour and charged with trespassing. A statement from the cops said the two men had been attempting to enter the school, where there were signs posted “no signs.”

The tape shows Lonegan quietly standing on the sidewalk when someone said “arrest him” and then someone cuffed him. I didn’t see him or Grossman “attempting” to get into the school.

A retired superior court judge who witnessed the arrests said it was “very scary.” Various media sources quoted him as saying it reminded him of movies he’d seen about Russia and Germany.

“My run-in with freedom of speech in New Jersey was a chilling, oppressive experience,” Lonegan told Reed.

The real chill here is that this kind of stuff happens all the time. Sometimes, it gets some press. I remembered a similar story from a meeting in Fargo, ND, that got attention so I googled it. Three years ago, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post reported that a city commissioner, liberal radio producer, a deputy Democratic campaign manager and a number of university professors were among 40 people in Fargo who were barred from a town hall meeting where President Bush spoke.

Tom Athans, chief executive of Democracy Radio, issued a statement after learning that a producer for a liberal show was among those booted. Athans was quoted as saying “to blacklist a local citizen because he produces a radio program at odds with the political agenda of the White House is dangerous for democracy.”

OK, so let me get this straight. We are fighting for freedom and democracy in other countries, but at home you feel the jackboot when you speak out?