Reverend Billy, a k a William Talen, went to court Tuesday in an effort to get harassment charges dropped. He was arrested in June after shouting the First Amendment at police officers. Photo: Annie Tritt for The New York Times.
via NYTimes: [additional links courtesy of newsgrist]
A Street Performer Crusades for the First Amendment
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Published: September 26, 2007
What is the purpose of the First Amendment?
That was the question before a judge in Manhattan Criminal Court yesterday, as a street performer named Reverend Billy, a k a William Talen, faced charges of harassing police officers in Union Square Park by reciting the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Mr. Talen — the white-suited, blond-pompadoured leader of the mock Church of Stop Shopping who is perhaps best known for his crusade against Starbucks — was arrested June 29. He had joined a protest against the city's new permit requirements [reports on the protest by newsgrist here and here] for the monthly Critical Mass bicycle rally and proposed restrictions on photographers and filmmakers in public places.
He was charged with two counts of second-degree harassment, under a statute originally intended for use against stalkers. He was accused of following a group of officers while repeatedly reciting the 40-odd words of the First Amendment through a megaphone, the kind commonly used by cheerleaders.
After his arrest, Mr. Talen said, he was jailed for 20 hours, first in a Gramercy Park precinct house, then in the underground Manhattan Detention Complex, popularly known as the Tombs, where he felt compelled to live up to his stage name by ministering to the less fortunate. In the precinct house, he said, he provided pastoral counseling to a young man who was crying after he was arrested for carrying a joint in his pocket. In the Tombs, one of the medical attendants recognized him and offered to put him in a "special" cell, which turned out to be for mental patients, Mr. Talen said.
In court yesterday, the prosecutor told Judge Tanya Kennedy that Mr. Talen's offense had been to shout the familiar lines beginning with "Congress shall make no law" while standing just three feet from the officers, and to ignore their requests to stop. The prosecutor, Mary Weisgerber, said his behavior was "obnoxious" by any standard.
"That's not true," Mr. Talen piped up.
Outside of court, Mr. Talen — who says that his lungs are like bullhorns because he has had operatic training — maintained that he was about 15 feet from the officers and that his account was supported by a videotape of the episode that has been preserved on YouTube.
Such findings of fact — three feet or 15 feet? — may someday go to a jury.
Yesterday's hearing turned on a more scholarly question: Does reciting the First Amendment serve a legitimate purpose?
Mr. Talen, 57, appeared in court looking, as he put it, more like a Puritan than a preacher in a black suit and a white shirt, a reversal of his usual outfit, and his blond hair lank instead of puffy. His wife, who is Reverend Billy's theatrical director and who goes by the name Savitri D., was at his side.
His lawyers, Norman Siegel and Earl Ward, told Judge Kennedy that the law defined harassment as engaging in a course of conduct that is not only "alarming" and "annoying" but "which serves no legitimate purpose."
Mr. Siegel argued that there could hardly be a more legitimate place than a protest rally to recite the First Amendment, with its lines barring Congress from "abridging the freedom of speech" and guaranteeing the rights "of the people peaceably to assemble."
The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has ruled that for a course of conduct to have "no legitimate purpose" it must have no thoughts or ideas besides threats, intimidation or "coercive utterances," Mr. Siegel said in a written brief.
The courts have found that it is not a crime for a husband to call his wife crude and vulgar names, Mr. Siegel said, quoting a case in which a judge ruled that "the registering of displeasure with another person is protected speech."
If swearing at one's wife can serve a legitimate purpose, Mr. Siegel said, reciting the First Amendment at a protest rally can, too. "We respectfully submit that reciting the 44 words of the First Amendment, you have a First Amendment right to do that," Mr. Siegel added.
Mr. Siegel asked Judge Kennedy to dismiss the charges, saying this was a "quintessential" case of a prosecutor acting without a basis in the law.
Under the charges, Mr. Talen could be sentenced to up to 15 days in jail.
Ms. Weisgerber told the judge that she needed more time to formulate a response. Judge Kennedy gave the district attorney's office until Oct. 15 to respond in writing and set a court date for Nov. 14. If the prosecution misses that deadline, Judge Kennedy said, she will grant the motion to dismiss the charges.