Disturbing cell phone footage from earlier this month shows police officers violating the civil rights of a protestor who attended a Reading, Pennsylvania LGBT Pride Month celebration.
In the video, a police officer is seen warning the man, a Christian named Damon Atkins, to “let them [Pride celebrators] have their day” and “respect it.” The man refuses the officer’s request and says, “This is public property. You do you and I’m gonna do me.” The officer, later identified as Bradley McClure, responds and says “that’s it, you’re done,” proceeding to handcuff and arrest the man for, supposedly, “disorderly conduct.”
PENNSYLVANIA — A Christian man was arrested for protesting a "Pride" event on a public street in Reading.
Damon Atkins was reciting a Bible verse when he was arrested. "I can't believe what I'm seeing."
The crowd cheered as cops handcuffed Atkins.pic.twitter.com/lloGaaqYnf
— Citizen Free Press (@CitizenFreePres) June 6, 2023
Of course, as First Amendment attorney Adam Steinbaugh pointed out, the probable cause affidavit later filed by the police officer contained no actual allegations that could substantiate such a charge.
“The Reading police, badly mangling Pennsylvania’s disorderly conduct statute, say his ‘volume’ was ‘inciting public inconvenience,’” the free speech lawyer explained. “But disorderly conduct requires ‘unreasonable noise’ — speaking loud enough to be heard by a noisy crowd isn’t unreasonable. The police weren’t arresting people cheering at the event. That’s a stark display of viewpoint discrimination — and one ending in handcuffs.”
This arrest was made on such flimsy grounds that the charges were dropped in short order. Hence why Steinbaugh concluded that the saga constituted an “egregious violation of the First Amendment.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this whole story, however, is that when Atkins was arrested, the crowd of LGBT Pride supporters cheered.
That’s right: They actively celebrated a government official arresting someone for his speech. This was genuinely jarring to me.
Just a few decades ago, gay activists would have abhorred such a free speech violation, even if they thought the speaker was a hatemonger or bigot, because they understood the value free speech as an ironclad principle has for radical social movements—like the gay rights movement once was. But many of today’s “queer” activists have lost this appreciation and instead seek to use for themselves the same censorship powers that were used against their predecessors.
That’s not just deeply hypocritical, but an impediment to future progress, because the arc of history shows us that some causes currently viewed as fringe—whose advocacy will be suppressed by the majority in absence of free speech protections—will eventually win the day and come to be widely seen as righteous. Yet that progress will never happen under the illiberal order they’re now applauding.
So, too, there’s a police accountability aspect to this story. Thanks to a judicially-created doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” citizens who have their rights violated by police officers are often blocked from suing those officers in civil court. As a result, even though this cop clearly violated Damon Atkins’ constitutional rights, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to hold him personally accountable in court. And without accountability, there’s no reason the officer won’t do it again to someone else.
A free society must protect the free speech of gay rights advocates and opponents alike. When either side weaponizes the government to shut down the other side, they might feel like they’ve gotten a win in the short-run, but in the long-run, they only undermine the structures and systems that keep us all free.