My column in Civil Beat this week tries to explain a recent Hawaii Supreme Court decision overturning the conviction of Hawaiian activist who had been charged with disorderly conduct after trying repeatedly to speak with then-Mayor Peter Carlisle at the city’s 2012 Lei Day Festival (“Ian Lind: Hawaiian Activist Was Right All Along, Supreme Court Rules“).
The case involved the arrest and conviction of Laulani Teale, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, homeless advocate, peacemaker and musician.
Her “crime,” according to court records, was to make repeated attempts to speak with then-Mayor Peter Carlisle when he appeared at the city’s annual Lei Day Festival at Kapiolani Park and, for a time, was seen shaking hands and speaking with members of the audience. Police blocked Teale from approaching the mayor and, when she repeatedly tried to walk past them, arrested her and led her away in handcuffs.
The court’s decision narrows the application of the “disorderly conduct” law and will make it more difficult in the future to use “disorderly conduct” as a catch-all charge to control situations in which the authority of the police is questioned or challenged.
I admit that the column is too long. I got into reading the case documents, including transcripts of testimony during the original trial, and ran out of time I would normally use to edit and polish. My fault.
But I came away with several impressions.
First, police officers testified they were there to protect the mayor, one adding, “at all costs.” But it appears that while they said they had to protect him from being attacked, they were at least equally interested in protecting him from confrontations with unhappy constituents.
A case can certainly be made that there’s a First Amendment right to personally speak with the mayor at such a public event, or at least a good case against using police powers to screen those who are allowed to get close to the mayor based on their personal beliefs or on the likelihood they will raise critical questions (rather than simply fawning comments).
And the court decision deals directly with when a protest that interrupts or inconveniences becomes “disorderly” in a legal sense. And the courts answer is that “disorderly conduct” isn’t as broad a category as police and prosecutors have tried to stake out.
Second, reading the transcripts, district court was not a friendly place for a protester, civil in demeanor or not. Although this was a criminal trial, and of course we know that one has to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the court seemed to allow little time for the defendant, who was representing herself, to create that reasonable doubt. When a key police witness dodged and weaved to avoid answer direct questions during cross examination, the judge appeared put out with the questions, not the deliberate avoidance of answers.
Third, some of that police testimony led the attorney who handled the appeals in the case to allege that at least one officer gave false and misleading testimony. That was never resolved, but it doesn’t give the public a lot of confidence in the way the system works, especially at the lower levels.
Then there’s the official hypocrisy about things Hawaiian. The city is eager to appropriate Hawaiian culture and arts as tourist bait, but not at all eager to deal with the much harder issues Hawaiians face, from homelessness to health care to education to discrimination.
In any case, the column is there for your reading since Civil Beat is no longer behind a paywall.