ACLU will pay protest defense

January 19, 1998

ACLU will pay protest defense


Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland will defend the Hagerstown man arrested last month while protesting the Washington County Commissioners on a park bench outside the county administration building.

Lawrence H. Freeman has a Feb. 19 trial date in Washington County District Court on a charge of trespassing at a public building during business hours.

At the time of his Dec. 23, 1997, arrest, he was holding up a sheet of paper that read: "Washington County Commissioners won't hire black men."


Dwight Sullivan, chief lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said Freeman was protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Sullivan also said a state law on loitering that applies specifically to Washington County allows for "orderly picketing or other lawful assembly."

"There is no way he violated this statute," Sullivan said. "He had a lawful purpose."

The ACLU has employed the law firm of Martin & Seibert of Martinsburg, W.Va., to defend Freeman.

Paul Weiss, an attorney with Martin & Seibert, wrote a letter dated Jan. 13 to Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long Jr., asking him if he intends to prosecute the charge.

Weiss contended in the letter that the public trespassing law under which Freeman was charged was unconstitutional, and said that in cases in which the ACLU has contested such charges, the state's attorney has dropped the charges.

Weiss contended Freeman was arrested because of the message on the paper he was holding.

"Certainly this matter would not have arisen if his placard commended the county on its hiring practices, rather than condemning it," Weiss wrote.

Long said Monday he has received the letter and hasn't decided whether to prosecute the case.

If convicted, Freeman could face a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Sullivan said a decision on any civil action would come after the criminal case is resolved.

Meanwhile, the community group Brothers United Who Dare to Care Inc. has condemned the arrest of Freeman in a letter to The Herald-Mail.

"We believe that the suppressive measures and actions taken ... were not only illegal and unconstitutional but also a misuse and abuse of government power," the group wrote.

Harry Barnett, the president of Brothers United, said Freeman was protesting peacefully, a right that any American citizen has.

Freeman said Monday he's worried that it might be even tougher to find work in Hagerstown because of the protest.

"Nobody likes you to bring out their dirty linen in public, especially when it comes down to the government," he said.

"I don't know how I am going to make it to the end of the month," he said. "There aren't any jobs out here and nobody's going to hire me.

"The sad part about Hagerstown is it's a little Mississippi. It's very wide open, the racism in this town," he said.

On the morning of Dec. 23, several city police officers, County Administrator Rodney M. Shoop, Human Resources Director Alan J. Davis and a Herald-Mail reporter were present when Freeman was arrested.

Shoop offered to sit down with Freeman and discuss his concerns and offered assistance with resume writing and other job-hunting skills.

Shoop also recommended that Freeman file a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which investigates discrimination in hiring, if he felt he wasn't treated fairly.

When Freeman refused Shoop's offer, Shoop told Freeman that he would have to ask the police to arrest him and said Freeman had no legal reason to be there.

In charging documents, police said Freeman failed to leave when asked, had "no apparent lawful business to pursue," and was "acting in a manner disruptive of and disturbing to the conduct of normal business."

Freeman had been a part-time bus driver for the county from 1983 to 1985.

Davis said the county does hire blacks and other minorities. The percentage of minorities in county government, about 3 percent, is equal to the percentage of minorities in the work force, according to the county.

Davis is updating the county affirmative action goals, which haven't been updated since April 12, 1994. Davis said the county needs to do a better job hiring and retaining minorities in professional positions and at the Sheriff's Department.

The Sheriff's Department has about 200 employees and no blacks. Sheriff Charles F. Mades handles hiring in his department.

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