Who pays for free speech?

One night some years ago, while rushing out to the store to get milk for my kid (my excuse), I rolled slowly through a stop sign.  A police officer stopped and cited me, apologizing as he did so.  To prevent penalty points from accumulating on my driver’s license–and watching my auto insurance premiums rise, I paid $70-80 extra and attended traffic school.

It was stupid and boring and time-consuming (a full day), but it worked.  I no longer roll through stop signs because I don’t want to go back to traffic school.  (Note: I’m sure it doesn’t always work this way; my traffic school classmates spent our lunch break recounting and comparing many previous sessions of traffic school.)

So, someone’s taken this idea to protest.  The LA Times reports that Deputy City Attorney William Carter has offered some arrested Occupy LA protesters the opportunity to avoid trial on misdemeanor charges by attending “free speech classes,” run by a private firm, American Justice Associates.

No doubt, the City Attorney’s office sees this approach as a way to save the expense and trouble of trials for serious or serial offenders.  Maybe officials also hope to impress upon the protesters the idea that in America free speech can come with “reasonable” time, place, and manner restrictions, a fact that at least some activists seem to miss.  (Having a sincere political belief, even an admirable one, doesn’t mean you can express it any way and anywhere you’d like; recall Justice Holmes’s warning about shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.)

But I’d be surprised if many demonstrators jump at the chance to pay $355 for this class, the content of which is still undefined.  They’ve already completed the course practicum, and may be willing to test the City’s capacity and interest in staging prosecutions of misdemeanor offenses.  (Most prosecutors won’t want to repeat the sorry and counterproductive example of Orange County’s handling of the Irvine 11.)

Citizens often face substantial risks and costs in their efforts to make a better world.  Participants in Occupy LA faced arrest and jail time in arraignment, to say nothing of giving up whatever else they might have been doing otherwise.

But America pays other costs for free speech–and we should.  Cities spend time and effort negotiating with political dissidents to choreograph and permit demonstrations, and then spend more money on extra police, court costs, clean-up, and maintenance.  This holds true even (especially!) when the ideas presented are heinous.  At right, see American Nazis, who Skokie police protected from counterdemonstrators.  Below see members of Fred Phelps’s Westboro Church, who consciously exploit America’s Constitutional tolerance for the expression of, uh, unpopular ideas.

Free speech has costs, social, political, and financial.  We hope the benefits are a healthier, saner, and smarter society.

Officials now estimate that Occupy LA cost the City well over $2 million for police, courts, and clean-up.  And this comes at a time when Los Angeles, like almost all American cities, faces severe budget pressure that undermines the delivery of basic services.

So, it’s easy to understand City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s announcement that he may sue Occupy LA for the costs to the City.  Maybe it’s his wishful thinking, maybe it’s political pandering, but Trutanich should know better: it’s the cost of a free society.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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