Student gets a tough lesson from the not-so-Free State

June 14, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN HIS FINAL days at Park School, Zachary Gidwitz got himself an education. He thought he had gotten a great one over his previous 12 years at that fine Baltimore County private school. But then Zachary went to Somerset County's Princess Anne. There, he was educated about that part of America called Maryland, which persists in calling itself the Free State even in our confused little era.

Zachary, 18, went to Princess Anne to see Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stage his veto of a health care bill at a Wal-Mart store. Zachary went there to see democracy in action. Instead, he saw it with a gag over its mouth.

As part of his senior year at Park, Zachary took a course in civil liberties, taught there for 21 years by John Roemer, previously executive director of Maryland's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"When I was head of the ACLU," said Roemer, "I worked hard for civil liberties. At Park, I teach that there are many sides to issues. But it's hard for me to see any side of people not being allowed to speak, or to hold up a sign."

He was talking about the thing that happened to Zach and about 30 others who went to Princess Anne on May 18 to protest Ehrlich's action. Many of the protesters were easy for police to pick out because they wore purple T-shirts. Zachary went as part of an independent study project with Maryland Health Care for All. They were joined by others from labor and health groups. They discovered freedom of speech with an asterisk attached to it.

When they got there, says Zach, "The Princess Anne police told us, if we did anything except politely clap for the governor, we'd be arrested, and that we couldn't raise our voice in protest, and we had to stand away from everybody else. I had been studying all this First Amendment stuff in Mr. Roemer's civil liberties class. It didn't sound right. So I called Mr. Roemer."

Roemer chuckles a bit ruefully at the memory. "He told me what was going on," says Roemer, "and I said, `Listen, you want to get arrested, or would you rather go to college?' I mean, I wanted to fly down there and get myself arrested, but I couldn't let this kid do it."

So he told Zachary to call the Maryland ACLU. The ACLU has been interviewing protesters for the last few weeks. So have I. I've interviewed half a dozen people who have echoed Zachary's account of police telling protesters not to carry signs or speak any words against the governor. If they did, they say they were told, they would be arrested.

Those interviewed were: Donna Edwards, secretary-treasurer of the Maryland-D.C. AFL-CIO; Bob McIntyre, president of the Delmarva central labor council; Shawn Dobson, deputy director of Progressive Maryland; Kimberly Nelson, state director of Marylanders for Health Care; Mark Federici of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400; and Tom Hucker of Progressive Maryland.

Their stories varied in only one detail: Some said police told them they were operating on orders of "the governor's people," while some did not remember those words being used. The governor's people deny issuing any orders.

Capt. Scott Keller of the Princess Anne police concurs. Protesters "were told that we have a Princess Anne ordinance that signs have to be pre-approved," he said in a telephone interview. "They're allowed to boo. Nobody would have done anything to them. If that word [arrest] was used, that's unfortunate. They were allowed to protest. They wore T-shirts to protest."

Keller insisted it was strictly the town ordinance that prohibited any demonstrating.

But we now have Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, and ACLU staff attorney David Rocah taking exception.

Rocah said his organization has interviewed several protesters "who were told by police that they were acting on orders from the governor's people to stop any protests."

What about police claims that they were only enforcing a local rule - Town Ordinance 163 - that prohibits protests?

"There is no ordinance on political demonstrations," said Rocah. "This ordinance is about putting signs on buildings. What the police did was blatantly unlawful. You don't need a permit from politicians or from police to carry signs expressing a point of view or to be allowed to boo while others cheer."

Last week, Rosenberg called on Ehrlich to review his procedures for handling protests at public events. An assistant attorney general, reviewing Rosenberg's letter, wrote that she could not determine whether protesters' free speech rights were violated.

In an interview yesterday, Rosenberg said, "This was an act of intimidation - to keep protesters out of the press coverage and the TV shots. It was an attempt to create the atmosphere of a political campaign - `It's Morning in Maryland' - and not show dissent.

"But it should make us all concerned about similar intimidation at campaign events in the coming year. And I think the governor needs to declare that he's not going to tolerate limits on freedom of expression in this state."

"All we wanted to do was hold up signs and, once Ehrlich finished speaking, we wanted to have our own press conference to give our side of the story," said Shawn Dobson of Progressive Maryland. "We were told we couldn't. I was so surprised that Putin's Russia had annexed Somerset County.

"Then another officer said, `You're not allowed to boo, chant, or hold up any signs, and if you do, we'll arrest you. One of our people said, `What happens if we want to cheer the governor?' The police said, `That's OK.' We were all pretty exasperated, but we weren't in a mood to go to jail. Maybe that was a failing on our part. The funny thing is, as the police were issuing their threats, the governor took the microphone and said, `Isn't it great to be in the Free State?'"

As part of his Park School education, Zachary Gidwitz now has a whole new meaning of the state's proud name.

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