Law professor talks First Amendment rights

By Maria Centeno
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

American citizens may have a First Amendment right to protest, but that doesn’t mean that those rights will be recognized by police on the streets, a local law professor said on Oct. 19.

Colin Starger, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, told a group of students and faculty members at Towson University that if their rights are denied in a public setting, they can seek recourse in the courts.

Starger said that while people are allowed to record police officers making an arrest in a public space as long as they are not interfering with the officer’s job, that right might not stop an officer from arresting the person with the recorder.

“The existence of a legal right doesn’t always guarantee that the police aren’t going to violate your rights in the street,” Starger said.

He shared an example in which one of his clients was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct during the Freddie Gray protests  for yelling “f*ck the police.”  He defended his client by arguing that his speech was protected by the First Amendment.

“It shouldn’t be a crime to say f*ck the police,” Starger said. “It’s protected by the First Amendment and it hadn’t led to some kind of riot.”

Starger said he won the case and the charges were dropped, but the fact that his defense was correct did not prevent his client from being arrested in the first place.

He said while American citizens have the right to protest under the First Amendment, they cannot protest anywhere at any time. The government is allowed to regulate protests to prevent chaos, he said.

However, the government may not regulate protests based on the subject matter of the protests, Starger said.

Starger said  the government can ban certain types of conduct as long as it can prove it has a valid reason to ban it. For example, he said the government may not prohibit flag burning.

“The First Amendment protects your right to be disrespectful. It protects your right to be offensive,” Starger said.

He said people are allowed to speak freely as long as their words do not incite lawless actions.

“You can say just about anything, so long as it doesn’t directly or produce imminent lawless action,” Starger said.

Starger’s speech was sponsored by Towson’s Department of Mass Communication and Communication Studies. It was part of the department’s second annual Media and Culture lecture series.

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