In a dramatic, last-minute effort to win the prize for “Most Obnoxious Law Enforcement Tactic of the Year,” the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office has announced that many arrested Occupy L.A. protesters will, as an alternative to fines or jail, be given the opportunity to attend “free speech” school to learn what rights they don’t have.
Let’s reflect for a moment on this one, shall we? The City of Los Angeles wants to teach people about the First Amendment. I needed to check that they were actually talking about the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, because they have occasionally seemed to lack familiarity with that document. This is, after all, the city that was on the wrong end of a $1.7 million verdict after police assaulted a journalist covering a rally in 2007, and attempted to control coverage of Occupy L.A. by excluding all media except a hand-picked pool of reporters. And let us not forget Special Order No. 11, which among other things directs the LAPD to file a “Suspicious Activity Report” about any photographer who takes pictures “with no apparent esthetic value.” Yes, art cops.
One can only imagine what a First Amendment course sponsored by Los Angeles would look like; constitutional law is complex at the best of times, let alone in connection with protests that test the edges of doctrine. That being the case, I imagine the course probably won’t have time to cover protesters’ rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to sue the city and the police for violations of their rights of assembly and expression. To round out the course materials, here’s a link to information on Section 1983 claims maintained at the Sacramento County Public Law Library.
But L.A. is not offering a public education to these poor misled souls who thought they had a right to express their beliefs – it turns out that the city wants to send the 99% to private school. The protesters are being offered the chance to attend a program offered by American Justice Associates, which bills itself as “a supportive arm of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office since 1995.” The company is, however, a private entity and not a branch of the government.
The Occupiers will have the opportunity to pay $355 for the course, but it is tough to say whether they will get their money's worth. You know, if Los Angeles is bringing in outside help, maybe they could consider hiring someone like Marc Randazza to run the course – he should be done dismantling Righthaven soon and might have time to help. And it would be fun to see what Marc would do with the tuition fees.
Of course, some of the Occupiers will voluntarily go to the reeducation camp rather than face charges or spend more time in jail. I can’t say I’d blame them, really – but personally I'd rather learn about fair use from YouTube’s infamous Copyright School. Let’s just hope they remember that there are other folks willing to advise them on their rights – for free.
Jeff Hermes is the Director of the Citizen Media Law Project and has a passing familiarity with the First Amendment.