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Freedom of speech and the Dick Cheney exception

June 04, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
  • Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks at an Inova Heart and Vascular Institute cardiovascular symposium in McLean, Va.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney speaks at an Inova Heart and Vascular… (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated…)

When can you be arrested for talking to someone?

When can you be arrested for touching them?

When the person you're talking to or touching is the vice president of the United States, it seems.

On June 16, 2006, Steven Howards spotted Vice President Dick Cheney, who was coming out of a shopping mall in Beaver Creek, Colo., and chatting amiably with several people. Howards approached the vice president and allegedly pushed or touched him on the shoulder as he told him that his "policies on Iraq are disgusting."

Aha, you say: So he was threatening Cheney and the Secret Service agents threw him to the ground and cuffed him. Got what he deserved? Can't take any chances with crazy people, right?

Well, not exactly. It seems that nothing happened right away. But when Gus Reichle, a Secret Service coordinator on the scene, heard about the incident from other agents, he found Howards, accused him of an assault and ordered his arrest.

The kicker? Howards was detained for several hours and released. No charges were filed.

So Howards did what a lot of Americans do these days. He sued.  And the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

There, that strict constructionist, Clarence Thomas -- who obviously must have asked himself “What would George Washington's guards have done?” -- said the agents couldn’t be sued for arresting a citizen who was exercising freedom of speech.

Well, what Thomas actually wrote was:

"This court has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause."

Probable cause?

OK, the Secret Service has a tough job. But the guy said his piece -- perhaps a bit too forcefully -- and that was seemingly it.  Arrest him?

That seems a bit much. 

Perhaps in the legal world the court had to take this stand. The decision was unanimous, after all.

But our leaders are walled off enough from the common folk, who don't always agree with what those leaders are doing.

And it would be nice if we could tell them that sometimes, without worrying about being arrested.

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