The disorderly conduct case against a Janesville man claiming police violated his First Amendment rights shows the importance in making distinctions between protected and unprotected speech.
Countless editorials and op-eds on this page have defended free expression, but the truth is, society would spin out of control were it to allow every form of speech.
In particular, we wouldn’t want Janesville residents to think it’s OK to confront people outside their workplaces and stick a video recorder in their faces while hurling insults at them, such as “Nazi” and “Blue ISIS.”
That’s what Aaron M. Oleston did to some Janesville police officers, and a Rock County jury made the right decision Monday finding Oleston guilty of disorderly conduct.
Oleston argued he was trying to expose local law enforcement corruption and that police violated his free speech rights when they arrested him in August 2018. We didn’t dismiss his defense outright because courts occasionally have ruled against law enforcement’s application of disorderly conduct charges, which can become a catch-all for any behavior that doesn’t neatly fit under other statutes. There have been instances of police using these charges to punish protected speech.
But in this case, Janesville police and the Rock County District Attorney’s Office correctly concluded Oleston’s speech fell outside the First Amendment scope.
When speech violates others’ rights, endangering or threatening them, it loses its constitutional protections. (The commonly cited example is that nobody has the right to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater.) Oleston didn’t merely express his disgust with police. He worked to intimidate and harass them while they were off duty.
Because of the nature of their job, police often face criticism for their actions, but we as a community cannot become so numb to these criticisms that we fail to notice when they turn abusive. Police are people, after all, not robots. They feel fear and anxiety like anyone else. Everybody regardless of profession has the right to go about his or her day without being harassed.
Oleston has developed a twisted view of law enforcement, and he’s on a self-guided mission to hold police accountable through his YouTube channel, Nomad Transparency. As much as we disagree with his opinion about Janesville police, we’d be the first to say he has a right to express it, and it’s important to note the charges against Oleston were not about his view of police.
This case was about how Oleston decided to express his viewpoint, and the jury held him accountable, demonstrating that the First Amendment isn’t license to spout off in any way we see fit. There are limits, and hopefully Oleston realizes it the next time he produces another one of his angst-filled YouTube episodes.