Precinct 333

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Illegal To Complain About Public Officials & Employees?

Sometimes I think we need a minimum competency test for legislators. If Nevada had one, there wouldn't be legislation pending that would make it illegal to complain about public officials and employees. The genesis of this legislation and its unsavory pedigree appear in an editorial by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In 1999, a misguided Legislature passed a bill that made it a crime to make a false allegation of misconduct against a police officer.

It didn't take long for the law to claim its first victim. In 2000, Washoe County resident Robert Eakins griped about Reno police in a letter to the city's mayor. The mayor forwarded the letter to police, who used the law's vague language to label the correspondence a formal complaint. Mr. Eakins was jailed for 14 hours.

In 2002, a federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional for many reasons, among them its exclusive application to law enforcement officers and not other public officials.

Last week, Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, introduced Senate Bill 150. To revive the unconstitutional law, this bill would make it a crime -- you guessed it -- to lodge a false allegation against any public official. If this bill is passed, most every taxpayer who has put into writing his frustration with the Legislature's inaction on property tax increases could end up incarcerated.

The public has a guaranteed right to criticize government and public officials. The 1999 law belongs in a distant, unmarked grave where it can never be unearthed for reconsideration.

Now mind you, I don't favor false misconduct claims against cops. My brother is a sergeant with an Oregon police department, and we watched in horror some years back as the district attorney and her ex-con boyfriend used her office to pursue a false charges against two of the cops on the department because they had caused his parole to be revoked. But when filing a legitimate complaint against a police officer can result in criminal penalties against a citizen because of a good-faith disagreement on what is proper police conduct, the law is no good.

To expand it to include complaints against any public official or employee is even worse. Consider this -- does claiming that a member of the legislature is a "tool of special interests" (as opposed to claiming he is a tool) constitute an allegation of bribery? What about a letter to the editor saying that he is dishonest? And we won't get into the dozens of he said/she said conflicts that happen every day between citizens and public employees -- would those be fodder for criminal charges? And what of the right to petition government for redress of grievances if the government can decide that such petitions citizens are wrong and subject them to criminal charges?

Here's hoping that Nevada voters will remember that Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, is opposed to their right to complain about government, and exercise their right to
express their disapproval by voting her out of office.


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