Free speech at stake in quirky Missouri gun case

02/26/2014 5:30 PM

03/03/2014 3:25 PM

In America, you can behave like a moron.

You can be a grown man firing guns while at your mother’s house and then be so offended that you were arrested for disturbing the peace that you post video of the encounter on Facebook and YouTube. You can even liken the arresting officer — a small town’s chief of police — to Saddam Hussein, juxtaposing the dictator’s and the chief’s photos on Instagram with the caption “striking resemblance.”

And when that chief reaches too far to bite back, gaining a court order to force your criticism out of the public sphere, the legal cavalry will come to your aid.

The case, out of tiny Kelso in southeast Missouri, attempts to safeguard freedom of speech in the age of the Internet. The

ACLU filed a lawsuit

against the chief of police on Tuesday.

Yes, the American Civil Liberties Union. Gun rights advocates may be surprised that the nonprofit organization would rush to a gun owner’s side. In that, they are a bit mistaken. It’s not so much the Second Amendment that is at issue. It’s the First. Although the ACLU is courting brownie points by terming their client “a Second Amendment advocate.”

The case began last May when Police Chief Jerry Bledsoe answered a call on a noise complaint and confronted Jordan Klaffer.

In the video

, Bledsoe appears measured, calm in his instructions. Bledsoe tells Klaffer he needs to surrender his guns or be arrested. He was arrested. Klaffer, who apparently had been target shooting on the private property, later pleaded guilty and paid a $125 fine.

But Klaffer, as is his right, also felt that his freedoms had been trampled by the whole episode. So he childishly lashed back at Bledsoe online.

Bledsoe asked for and was initially granted an order of protection against Klaffer, forcing him to take down the posts. The order was later lifted.

The ACLU’s legal director for Missouri categorized the use of such an order to limit criticism of the government as “the worst kind of censorship.” The ACLU noted that other means of voicing views, say leafleting, enjoy protections grounded in case law.

But the legal record is still cloudy when the Internet is the method.

It’s tempting to feel for Bledsoe. He was just doing his job. But the case is about much more. The ACLU is right to take on the chief’s thin-skinned reaction as an overreaction because, like it or not, the Internet is the new town square.

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