Well, not really. But it’s sort of like Voltaire’s statement about people saying things he didn’t agree with: sure, maybe he disagreed, but he was more worried about their ability to say what was on their minds: once you start telling people they can’t think in a particular way, or talk in a particular way, or look a certain way…or hang around with a particular group of people…
Anyway, Voltaire lived in France a few centuries ago. But the events of last week in France show just how much old problems can stay current: seventeen people died, all as a result of a newpaper making jokes about things other men – violent, armed men – believed were worth killing about.
A few decades after Voltaire made this famous statement, we drafted a document in this country called the Constitution. We did so in reaction to many things, but one of those things was the way King George III – our King, until we got rid of him by force of arms – would send his soldiers to search us anytime he felt like it without any pretext or reason at all. In response to this unchecked ability by the government to search its citizens and seize their goods, we drafted, as part of the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment to the Consitution, which ensures that
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and
particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Really, it meant nothing more than that all cops must have a reason to search a citizen, and that this reason be a good one, one the cop can declare. It prevents random searches and seizures, harassment, the “papers please” of Eastern Europeans spies in bad espionage movies. Or it is supposed to.
One place where the Supreme Court has held that the cops have a little leeway is in drunk driving checkpoints. Yet even these have to be conducted in a fair manner, with some safeguards to ensure that the police don’t use them to fish, to create crime where none existed before. So when the cops started stopping all motorcycles at checkpoints for “safety checks” about five years ago, in the northeast, a group of concerned motorcyclist-lawyers brought suit.
Their class action suit alleged that requiring ALL BIKES to stop and submit to safety checks was unconstitutional. At these checkpoints, often found outside of big rallies like Americade, the cops would detain people for sometimes long periods of time, examine their bikes and their gear in invasive and minute detail, write tickets and generally put a chill on the freedom-loving spirit of the motorcyclists. The suit alleged that the checks did not follow the randomness safeguards that the Supreme Court put in place for drunk driving checkpoints, and in effect amounted to warrantless searches – in direct contravention of the Fourth Amendment and the First, which guarantees the right to say what you want, and to assemble where and with whom you see fit.
Motorcyclists are a particularly vulnerable group of people: some guys who ride have done things wrong (although the vast majority are regular, honest citizens), some guys look a little wild and the free-wheeling motorcycle lifestyle can intimidate the straights. This is exactly what Voltaire warned about, and what the Founding Fathers were concerned about in the Bill of Rights. And the problem is clearly just as current today as when Voltaire made his statement and the guys wearing wigs drafted the Bill of Rights in Philadelphia, over two hundred years ago.
As it stands, the class action grinds it way through the courts. The cops have laid off a bit, and the motorcyclists have stayed mature by cooperating with the Smokies, even as they knew their rights were being trampled upon. People reasonably hate the assumption by the cops that because they are on a bike, they must be up to no good, and any other message is hard to read in the lesson of the checkpoints: the troopers definitely don’t stop all Avon ladies, for instance. Another thing that came out in the course of the litigation is that these checkpoints are being paid for by money earmarked by the state to provide safety courses to motorcyclists.
The checkpoints also run afoul of the First Amendment, which guarantees peoples’ right to assemble. But as of yet, no decision from the High Court in New York. It’s hard to believe, but the wheels of justice turn ever-so-slowly. But turn they do, and a resolution will come, and we all hope it will be the right thing: the right to twist the throttle, put your face into the wind and enjoy life from one of the best places ever created to enjoy it: the seat of your bike, free of unwonted interference by the organs of the state.
Life’s hard enough.