Last fall, Black Lives Matter protesters from Louisville visited Olive Hill at the prompting of former KCU student and activist Dee Garrett. Garrett cited an internet article calling Olive Hill the “most racist city in Kentucky.” Olive Hill earned this distinction because – at one time – the city had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. It wasn’t the only town with a Klan chapter. Other towns had multiple Klan chapters, in addition to other racist groups, but they also had exponentially higher populations. That meant that the number of organizations per population was higher in Olive Hill simply because it’s a very small town.
When you look at the Southern Poverty Law Center site today, Olive Hill doesn’t even register. Regardless, people who came with Garrett from Louisville came with a certain perception, and what they found was something different. What they found were a mix of people; some completely unwilling to listen (and intent to lecture), some willing to listen and discuss, some willing to pray together and find common ground, some in complete solidarity from the outset.
They also found police who were completely content to stand back, allow them to exercise their First Amendment rights, and only step in to intervene – usually by inserting themselves between individuals – when conversations seemed to be getting too heated.
Everyone who came to Olive Hill from Louisville that Sunday went home. No one was arrested. No one was beaten. No one was tased. No tear gas was deployed.
As one protester was heard telling a Kentucky State Police officer on the scene, “If the Louisville Police acted like this, we wouldn’t have any problems with them.”
In other words, our local police officers on the scene – Carter County Sherriff’s Department, Olive Hill Police, Grayson Police, and KSP – acted with all the decorum and professional due and expected of their office.
They did this despite comments and chants from some of the protesters that painted all police in a negative light. Comments that could have been seen as taunting. But comments that were also a form of protected speech.
Protected speech doesn’t have to be popular speech. If it were popular, it probably wouldn’t need protecting.
This includes speech that questions authority figures and criticizes branches, departments, or individuals within the government; like police departments and individual police officers.
This is why a new bill making it a crime to taunt police officers (a misdemeanor punishable by fine and up to 90 days in jail) is not only a bad idea, but also likely to be found unconstitutional when inevitably challenged.
It’s why the Kentucky House should refuse to pass it when it comes to them. It’s why if (when) it passes the House, it should be vetoed by Governor Andy Beshear.
It’s a slippery slope to make “taunting” an officer a crime. If an officer is touched or spat upon the perpetrator can already be arrested for assault. But if questioning the police officer’s authority to act in a certain way or asserting your rights in a way they interpret as taunting means you can be arrested for up to 90 days, we’ve gone too far. Never mind the public relations nightmare of enforcing such a law at a time when the police – as a profession – are already under the proverbial microscope.
Maybe part of weeding out the “bad apples” before they spoil the whole bunch means getting rid of officers who can’t endure some name calling or perceived disrespect without feeling the need to lash out violently.
It’s a tough job. We understand that. We appreciate that. And we appreciate our officers. But as our local officers proved to a contingent who came to Carter County expecting the worst, our officers can act with decorum and professionalism, even in the face of taunts and bad names.
Instead of passing a new law – one that promises to cost the state money in legal fees if it passes and erode the protections of free speech in the meantime – we recommend fully using existing laws regarding assault and encouraging officers to follow the examples set by our Olive Hill, Grayson, and Carter County officers and the local KSP.