Important Update: The jury was instructed by the judge to not allow Rory’s First Amendment defense, and unfortunately listened to her, finding Rory guilty. The ordinance he was accused of violating prohibited advertising, and the judge had earlier in the proceedings determined that the stickers were not political speech, but were rather advertising. We will keep you posted as the thing develops.
I will let you all know more as things unfold, but Rory’s trial has now been completed, and the jury is currently deliberating. In the meantime, you can get more of a factual update here.
Because justice on such a trivial matter is way more expensive than it ought to be, I am again providing a link to those who want to help with the guys’ legal defense.
As some of you may know, some time back the county (as opposed to the city) dropped the charges against Seamus, Rory’s younger brother, requiring that he write a paper for them, which I have included below.
I am publishing it here for your amusement and edification. Comments are open.Show Outline with Links
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND STICKERS IN THE TIME OF COVID
By Seamus Wilson
INTRO TO CIVICS
What is civil disobedience? Is it good? Is it evil? Is it an unfortunate necessity? And what does it have to do with #stickergate?
As an innocent fourteen-year-old Idahoan who had never been in any kind of trouble, my uneducated assumption was that civil disobedience was when somebody ignored a law or an authority to make a point or achieve a political goal.
But then I found myself stuck in a string of civics lessons that has forced me to think about it more seriously. For the last sixteen months and counting, I have been prosecuted for allegedly disobeying a city ordinance to make a political point. It has been confusing, because if l had really, truly broken that ordinance just to look for Aspen the lost dog or advertise a yard sale, then I would not have been prosecuted at all. It was the political nature of my alleged offense that triggered my prosecution and put me in danger of indefinite meetings with social workers or trading some of my high school experience for a sentence in juvenile hall.
Throughout this process, I’ve also had a front row seat as others have ignored or broken far more serious laws to accomplish their own goals. Which has made me wonder, what’s the difference between civil disobedience and just law-breaking to get your way?
This whole thing started when my brother and I ( and hundreds of others) attended an outdoor psalm sing in protest of the city’s extension of a mask mandate. Some people thought the psalm sing was an example of civil disobedience. Were we breaking a law (or a mayoral order) to make a political point? The mayor’s order exempted religious activities, so the psalm sing wasn’t actually disobeying anything. But someone had painted social distancing dots in the parking lot, and it seemed like we were supposed to stand on them. And when we didn’t, the MPD showed up and started arresting people. If those dots were actually laws with authority over religious activities, I guess not standing on them would count as civil disobedience. Either way, the whole thing ended up all over national media, not always accurately, but always in a way that made our city government and the MPD look embarrassingly out of touch with the Constitution. President Trump even tweeted about it.
I think it stung local officials and hurt some feelings. Our local police force didn’t enjoy messing up on a national stage and looking like bad guys. And I doubt city officials appreciated being derided by Trump. I know my brother’s prosecutor lashed out in private about my church’s “sh*t” and “bullsh*t”, also calling us “Christ Church assholes” and “religious idiots.”
As for my brother and I, we were bothered by the mayor’s refusal to define “emergency” in his emergency mask mandates. We were bothered when the city council placed an ad in the paper with a snitch line where people could report their neighbors for violations. And we were bothered by the city’s mask mandate slogan: “Enforced Because We Care.” That’s why we were at the psalm sing protest. But we were far more bothered by the illegal arrests made at that protest. And this is where we allegedly broke an old, never before enforced city ordinance that prohibits the placing of advertising matter on poles and things without permission.
Our alleged crime? The placing on poles of red, non-damaging stickers that said, “Soviet Moscow: Enforced Because We Care.”
You can see where the lines of civil disobedience become confusing. Was the psalm sing civil disobedience? Maybe. If cops were commanding people to stand on dots and they were refusing, would that qualify? Were the arrests civil disobedience? If the arrests really were illegal and were done to make a political point, would they qualify? Do you have to know if you’re breaking a law to make it civil disobedience? And does it count if you’re in power, wearing a badge and carrying a gun? What if you’re in power and breaking the law to achieve a political goal?
Dr. King said this: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Interesting. And I agree. But is the disobeying of unjust laws all it takes to make something civil disobedience?
In A Theory of Justice, the political philosopher John Rawls (someone I had never heard of before this paper) asks the question: “At what point does the duty to comply with laws enacted by a legislative majority (or with executive acts supported by such a majority) cease to be binding in view of the right to defend one’s liberties and the duty to oppose injustice?” He goes on to define civil disobedience as, “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about change in the law or policies of the government.” To boil that down: the public, political, nonviolent, and conscientious breaking of law, done with the aim of bringing about change.
Dr. Rawls goes on to say that the law being broken is often not the law being protested, but can be a lesser law, basically sacrificed for attention. The Canadian truckers are a recent example. They broke traffic and parking laws to protest covid restrictions at the border. Illegal sit-ins to protest government action, or pro-life protestors trespassing to protest Roe. That kind of thing. If our local mask mandate had not exempted religious activities, the psalm sing protest would be a great example.
When police did not mirandize me or when they defied a subpoena and didn’t hand over video of my interrogation or when they’ve fudged the truth under oath, they were not engaging in civil disobedience, because they were not trying to bring about change in an unjust system. They were just trying to get me to settle or to protect themselves.
When a city council member partied with her friends on Polk Street with open containers of alcohol while painting a UI logo on the asphalt, was that civil disobedience? It was nonviolent, public, and illegal. Were they effecting change, protesting injustice, or just flexing insider privilege?
When a man posts many hundreds of fliers looking for his lost dog, Aspen, and gives multiple interviews to the paper about it, he is openly violating the ordinance that the city alleges that I, my brother, and my father have broken. He checks every box on the criteria for civil disobedience except two. What he’s doing isn’t political, and he’s not trying to protest an unjust law or action. And I think that’s been the rub in my case. My speech was political and critical of those in power. A dog owner gets a pass, somehow receiving automatic permission to “break the law” because the system isn’t threatened at all. But someone critical of the city’s actions is prosecuted. The distinction has nothing to do with the amount of posting, as the number of dog fliers posted for Aspen dwarfed anything I was alleged to have done. And to be clear, I don’t want that dog owner prosecuted, and I’m glad he found Aspen. But I think our city needs some time alone with the first amendment.
When someone with power bends or breaks codes, laws, or ordinances, it is not civil disobedience, even if they are doing what they are doing because they think it’s what’s best, or because they are trying to achieve some greater good. And that’s an addition of mine to what little I know of Rawls. In order to engage in civil disobedience, you have to be without power, and you break a law as a way to bring attention to injustice or corruption. The powerful don’t need to do things like that. Civil disobedience is for the powerless, for the people who are not in charge to disrupt the security of the power above them.
And so, while I don’t think the psalm sing was illegal, it was very much that kind of thing. A church organized a nonviolent, religious event in protest of the actions of those in power. And it worked how civil disobedience should, bringing tons of attention and getting even more when the powerful tried to step on it. But when officers of the law or the court choose to break laws themselves and apply ordinances only to political opponents and members of a despised group (sh*t-religious idiot-assholes), they are very much on the other side of the civil disobedience story, part of the system that needs to be challenged.
My alleged ordinance breaking is also very similar to civil disobedience. The only problem is that I didn’t break any law. Although I wouldn’t have minded if l had. The illegal arrests needed protesting and political speech is protected by a very old permit. That permit came from a bunch of dead guys in wigs, along with the full ratification of the states. That permit has since been upheld by the courts and defended by millions of men and women, hundreds of thousands of whom have sacrificed their lives to defend it. And that’s the strongest political permit anyone could ever hope for. And it’s a permit we can’t let ourselves lose.
Bottom line: none of the players in and around #stickergate have been engaged in traditional civil disobedience, although a lot of it feels that way.
Better luck next time, I guess. We’ll figure this civil disobedience thing out in Moscow eventually. Given the way city government views us, we are bound to have opportunities.
I have always instinctively liked and trusted cops. I have learned the hard way to never, ever talk to them. I have learned the hard way that officers are trained to lie to you and that some are even willing to lie under oath, being willing to sacrifice the future of a couple kids, even potentially imprisoning them, rather than admit personal or professional fault.
My advice, tips, and lessons for the next time you or I are dealing with cops is basically this: Do not trust them. Don’t believe them. Don’t even speak to them. Remember that you have the right to remain silent and you have the fifth amendment. If you are genuinely arrested (like me and my big brother were) the cops are required to read Miranda warnings to you.
If I could go back to that night and do it again, I would have ignored the cops completely. I would not have stopped doing what I was doing or answered them or obeyed them in any way. And even that would not have been civil disobedience. I would have forced them to cuff me and read me my rights. And the only word they would have heard coming out of my mouth would have been: “Lawyer.”
I write this now preserving all my civil and constitutional claims against MPD, individual officers, the city of Moscow, Latah County, and individual officials, as has been agreed by my prosecutors.