EDITORIAL: A lesson from the street

A policeman’s unhappy lot is to take criticism, like the rest of us

Posting public information isn’t a crime, nor is taking a photograph of a public official conducting business on a public street. Nevertheless, Taylor Hardy, a journalism student, must appear in court Thursday in Boston to explain why he recorded a Boston police sergeant reacting violently to his filming of cops apparently engaged in the people’s business on a public street.

When the four-minute video, taken on a hot summer day, began attracting thousands of Internet viewers, Mr. Hardy, like a good student, called the Boston Police Department’s official spokesman, Angelene Richardson, for comment. In the interests of full disclosure, he posted their conversation on YouTube. Mr. Hardy was charged with wiretapping.

Now the story gets even more interesting. Carlos Miller, a blogger 1,500 miles away in Miami, saw the video and posted a comment on his own website. “Maybe we can call or email [Ms.] Richardson,” wrote Mr. Miller, “to persuade her to drop the charges against [Mr.] Hardy, considering she should assume all her conversations with reporters are on the record unless otherwise stated.” He posted her office telephone number. This appears to be a polite and straightforward expression of speech protected by the First Amendment, but the Boston police nevertheless charged Mr. Miller with “witness intimidation,” a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in state prison and a fine of $5,000.

The blogger did not intimidate Ms. Richardson. She was not told to “avoid court if you know what’s good for you.” Everyone has a right to call her in her official capacity to tell her what he thinks. She doesn’t have to pay attention to what anyone tells her, or even to listen.

If the Boston Police Department is looking for intimidation, it may be on the video that started all this. It shows a plainclothes police sergeant bumping into Mr. Hardy, saying, “You touch me again and I will lock you up for assault and battery on a police officer.”

Public officials, including police officers, cannot be allowed to use their offices to insulate themselves from scrutiny or criticism, even harsh criticism. The law protects the public from being hurt by the bad guys, even with badges. From this distance, neither Mr. Hardy nor Mr. Miller appears to have done anything but bruise an ego or two. The real offense appears to be the abuse of the judicial system to intimidate. We hope the court explains this to the misbehaving cops, and why they can’t be allowed to do that.

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