The right to petition our government for redress of grievances is one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. So when I read in the Missourian that a band of activists planned to exercise that right Wednesday, I tagged along. It’s always inspiring to see the First Amendment in action.
Sixteen of the People for a Taser-Free Columbia gathered in the lobby of City Hall, briefly explained their purpose to the assembled journalists and proceeded upstairs to deposit their petitions with the city clerk. Their number included three children and several well-known greybeards. Among the latter were mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan, bookseller and civil libertarian *Ken Green, and retired professor and frequent essayist Gene Robertson.
Driving force Mary Hussmann had planned to hold the media event outside, by the new Keys to the City sculpture, but the rain pushed us indoors. The sculpture (which sure looks more like a keyhole than a key) would have made a nice background for the cameras. I couldn’t help thinking of its metaphorical significance.
The kind of civic activism personified by the People for a Taser-Free Columbia surely is, and long has been, a key to what’s best about Columbia. You don’t have to agree with the goal of a petition drive to admire those sufficiently committed to a cause to hit the streets, accost perfect strangers and collect signatures. It was a petition launched by students more than 30 years ago that gave us for a time our unique status as the only city with its own deposit ordinance. It was a petition drive that abolished that ordinance. Most recently, a petition drive led to the vote that will place surveillance cameras downtown.
Many petition drives these days, of course, rely on the efforts of paid solicitors. That’s true, for instance, of the drive to do away with the Missouri Plan of selecting judges. There’s big money behind that campaign. Not so with the anti-Taser campaign.
When I asked, Mary assured me that “nobody got so much as a cup of coffee” for circulating these petitions. That makes even more impressive the 4,000-plus signatures submitted this week. Just to make sure they have the required minimum of 3,667, the People plan to continue collecting during the 30 days the clerk has to examine those already turned in.
The Taser-Free Columbia members have no illusions about the likelihood that our newly reconstituted City Council will approve the ordinance that would make it a Class A misdemeanor "for any Columbia Police Officer or any assisting law enforcement personnel or any other individual to threaten to use or to fire/activate any CED (Conducted Electrical Device), including, but not limited to a Taser, stun gun, stun belt, or shock stick, against any person within the city limits of Columbia, Missouri."
As happened with the downtown camera campaign, once the council rejects the ordinance, it will go on the ballot. The target is the Nov. 2 general election.
I remain unpersuaded of the merits of the Taser-free argument. As long as cops require weapons, this one seems to me preferable to the club or the firearm. On the other hand, there is a depressing record, even here, of Taser use that appears unreasonable and that has produced real harm. Keeping them out of untrained or ill-intentioned hands is clearly desirable. The anti-Taser folks are convinced that effective regulation is impossible.
This is a public policy debate worth having. Whether we agree with them or not, the People for a Taser-Free Columbia deserve our respect. And, as always, the First Amendment deserves our veneration.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.