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Editorial - Is protest outlawed?

December 30, 1997

Editorial - Is protest outlawed?

Following the arrest of a black man who claimed he was being denied a county job because of his race, Washington County Human Resources Director Alan Davis says the county needs to revamp its affirmative action program. We suggest that the county commissioners first need to decide what's an acceptable method of protesting their policies, because the one they're using now is too restrictive.

Fifty-three-year-old Lawrence Freeman was arrested Dec. 23 as he sat on a bench in front of the Washington County Administration Building at 100 W. Washington St., holding up a sheet of paper that said, "Washington County Commissioners won't hire black men."

It's important to emphasize that Freeman wasn't inside when arrested and wasn't interfering with any functions of the county government. He'd been inside the building a day earlier, putting up posters alleging discrimination and was described as acting in a "belligerent" manner when Davis took down the papers.

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How belligerent was Freeman? He was certainly no more belligerent than some of those who attended an April 1996 hearing at North Hagerstown High School to protest water/sewer rate hikes and none of them were arrested.

The tradition of peaceful protest has a long and honorable history in America, dating back to Henry David Thoreau's willingness to be jailed overnight rather than pay a poll tax that supported a war against Mexico. His 1849 essay on that experience, entitled "Civil Disobedience," influenced Gandhi's struggle to free India from British rule and the Rev. Martin Luther King's push for civil rights in the U.S.

Freeman's path isn't the one we'd have recommended if he'd asked us for advice on the best way to get a county job. But just because we don't agree with his method doesn't mean we (or anyone else) can deny him the right to use it. Before you dismiss him as a crank, consider this: If displaying a poster on a bench in front of a government building is enough to get someone arrested, then the county's troubles go far beyond one man's struggle to get a job.

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