Practicing Free Speech: A Guide When Dealing With Bluffing or Poorly-Informed Property Owners

by E.A. Jensen

Step 0: Figure Out Why and How to Protest

Recently, I decided to register my disapproval of Mr. James Comey being fired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now I’m not a fan of protesting. Personally I think it’s a pretty big waste of time, unless the form it takes enables action to get traction. But I felt that, between the power of social media and the location of the protest, the activity would be sufficient to get traction via the implied promise that I can and will engage in impacting the area’s vote.

Now I’ve participated in a march or two and a protest or two, and I have to say that I prefer the ones that are most similar to a BBQ: sit back, listen to the speeches, enjoy the weather, good conversation, that sort of thing. All except the conversation can be accomplished by a protest of one (1) as I was currently contemplating. No problem. I have a lot of work to do, and if I can protest while doing it, then the cost associated is reduced. In this case, I needed to do a lot of studying for a major exam. Which is dull in of itself: “The Environmental Protection Agency was established on such-n-such a date and specifies…10% underground tanks and…rinsed three times…ozone sources…Zzzzzzzzzzzz…” So there’s nothing like a good protest to help one acquire the emotions that go with retaining information *ding* (true fact). So if I could study while protesting, it’s actually a win-win for me.

Step 1: The Rules of Protesting (Kingwood Area Edition)

Now, I’m experienced when it comes to going to voter poll locations and providing information. There are certain rules that need to be followed. Some regard your location, others regard the use of signs, what can be written on the signs and so on and so forth. So with this knowledge in hand, I planned my protest: I had my portable armchair, two posterboard signs with stakes for planting in the ground next to my armchair, my statement on the posterboard, the location where I was going to sit (outside of Rep. Ted Poe’s office on City of Houston curbside grass), my study materials, and most importantly my cup of coffee.

I was there for about 15 minutes when Mr. Bennet, a gentleman who managed/owned the office building in which Rep. Poe was a renter, emerged and said I was illegally there. When I said I thought I was on City of Houston property, he said I was wrong and threatened to call the police. I said I would leave and pulled out my phone, asking him to repeat his assertions. I wanted to make sure and double-check what he was saying.

Now here’s a critical detail: I trusted my understanding as an expert on local politics, and given contradictory information, neither reacted to tell him he was wrong without being certain nor assumed that I must be wrong. I simply gathered data for a closer examination. Local politics can be a complicated weave of regulations and rules between government and private entities, and I’ve learned that you never assume anything. Mr. Bennet was about to learn this as well.

His response to my recording the statement was to accuse me of being confrontational as I brought up the recording application on my phone, then he reluctantly repeated the assertion, and then he himself touched the button on my phone to end the recording. The action of which was hypocritical in that that the man accusing me of behaving illegally on his private property had no issues with infringing on my private property and interrupting perfectly legal behavior.

Since he threatened to call the police, I decided that was a pretty good idea and called them in between meetings. It turned out that I was correctly located on City of Houston property and that protests are not allowed to stake the signs in the ground. This was one of the differences between protesting and campaigning I found. So I called Mr. Bennet and informed him that I was legal in location if not in the use of stakes. The purpose of my phone call was to ensure that our conversation the next time I returned was a positive one.

Step 2: Call Public Affairs with Houston Police Department for Assistance in Conforming to the Rule of Law (713-308-3200)

During my meeting he called back and left a message. Which you have to listen to (below). In it, he says I’m wrong and that the local neighborhood association says I can’t have signs on the City of Houston property, and I should call them if I don’t believe him. Also, he found my description of Mr. Comey as a “*bleep*-hole” to be offensive to the children. As you listen, notice how absolutely positively certain he is in something that’s provably incorrect.

Voicemail Recording

While thinking to myself, “What kind of parents would let their children be aware of offensive words that could be used to fill in *bleep*?” (one police officer laughed when I told him the story), I also recognized that Mr. Bennet was using a sleight-of-hand (intentionally or unintentionally). I know for a fact from having dealt with my own neighborhood association that those organizations are under no enforced rules to provide accurate information to anyone of the public but board members. If it’s not a certified letter from the attorney, which I certainly would never get, any feedback from a neighborhood association should be considered as valuable as the data bits that it took to transmit the information.

Good try, Mr. Bennet, but no go.

So with his recording in hand and all my meetings for the day over with plenty of study time remaining, I headed to the downtown Houston Police Department Headquarters. FYI: there’s a nice museum about the dept there, and I strongly recommend everyone check it out!

At the desk, had a lovely conversation with the officer that I was passed to. When he asked why I was protesting, and I explained about Mr. Comey, his response was, “Oh, the address for the person you need to talk to is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

“In D.C.?” I asked, smiling.

He did one of those straight-faced, pleased looks that my brother-in-law makes and replied, surprised, “You got it!”

“I don’t want to fly to D.C.,” I told him, “Have you seen how people are treating each other on airplanes these days?”

Anyways, he called around and got me to Public Affairs who then got me in touch with their Public Assembly officer. On explaining the situation, he confirmed that (a) the City of Houston’s rules supersede the neighborhood association’s relative to the property on which I was standing and (b) he said he would call Mr. Bennet to apprise him of that fact. I also told him about how another of Mr. Bennet’s objections was the wording and that I would have no problem with modifying it.

So finally everything was ready for an armchair protest.

Step 3: Protest (& Study—I passed!)

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