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Editorial - Dismiss this case now

January 20, 1998

Washington County State's Attorney Kenneth Long should save the county any further embarrassment and drop the charges against Lawrence Freeman, a black man arrested Dec. 23 for protesting the county government's hiring policies. It's time to agree to the American Civil Liberties Union's request for a dismissal and admit that this arrest was a mistake that going to trial would only compound.

Freeman was arrested as he sat on a park bench in front of the county administration building, holding up a notebook-sized piece of paper which charged that the "Washington County Commissioners won't hire black men." County officials said he had been inside the county office building the previous day, posting papers with a similar message, and was reportedly upset when they were removed.

If Freeman had been inside the building when he was arrested, disrupting the functions of county government, that would have been another story. But when police put the handcuffs on him, he was sitting on a bench outside the building, engaged in a peaceful protest of a policy he believed was unfair.

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Until the ACLU agreed to fund his defense, there was no outpouring of public support for Freeman, who's had some minor scrapes with the law in the past. Perhaps the timing of his arrest, which came two days before Christmas, kept citizens from focusing on the real issue - the apparent judgment by some county officials that they can censor speech they don't like.

If this arrest stands, then county government would be able to order the arrest of union officials peacefully protesting the government's negotiating techniques. If this arrest stands, then county government would be able to quash any public citizen protest over escalating water and sewer bills. If this arrest stands, then the county government will be the arbiter of what taxpayers are allowed to say when they stand in front of a building that their dollars purchased.

At this point, Freeman's arrest has been a local matter. If it goes to trial, it will receive statewide attention of a negative nature. To prevent that, Long needs to dismiss this case. Now.

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