These are civil rights?

By Ed Quillen
Denver Post Columnist

It does not come easy for me to root for the police and prosecutors, especially when they're dealing with non-violent protesters, but as nearly as I can tell, the Denver Police Department acted properly last October to protect the rights of American citizens to express themselves, and a jury last week acted improperly in acquitting the people who tried to deprive others of their civil rights.

At issue was the annual Columbus Day parade and protest last year. More than 200 people were arrested in downtown Denver on Oct. 9 after they blocked the parade, which was organized by the Sons of Italy-New Generation. The protesters were charged with failure to obey a lawful police order, and eight of their leaders were tried, and acquitted, last week.

One of those acquitted leaders was Glenn T. Morris, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver. Even though the college catalog says that he holds a juris doctorate from Harvard, his understanding of American constitutional principles seems dubious, to say the least.

After the trial, he said, "What this verdict says is that hate speech should be relegated to the past."

He makes two assumptions:

1) That a Columbus Day parade is a form of "hate speech"; and

2) That the government has an obligation to suppress "hate speech."

Neither holds up.

Christopher Columbus was certainly no saint, but he did accomplish something, and if celebrating that is a form of "hate speech," then what parade is not a form of "hate speech"?

For instance, many cities hold parades for St. Patrick's Day. It's an expression of Irish-American pride. But it doesn't really cover all the Irish, just the Catholic Irish from the south part of the island. Up north, there are the Protestants, also known as Orangemen or Ulster Scots. Fleeing oppression, thousands of them emigrated to America in the 18th century, among them one Elijah Quillen in 1755.

In Ireland, the Orange and the Green have been at each other's throats since the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and the violence sadly continues in our time. By Morris' logic, a St. Patrick's Day parade could be viewed as a form of "hate speech" and "ethnic intimidation" directed at those of Irish Protestant descent.

But the celebration of St. Patrick with shamrocks, leprechauns and green beer is not the promotion of violence in Ireland.

Celebrations are not "hate speech," and even if they were, so what? The First Amendment to the federal Constitution protects the right to free speech. It does not say anything about content. It says, "Congress shall make no law," not "Congress shall enjoy the power to prohibit hate speech, ban material deemed harmful to minors, suppress utterances that hurt people's feelings ... and this power may be delegated to college professors who can determine the allowable range of public expression."

We have the right to march in parades to celebrate Martin Luther King or Nathan Bedford Forrest, to honor Sitting Bull or George Armstrong Custer, and we have the right to stand on the sidelines and heckle the paraders. The Denver Police were protecting those rights when they arrested those who were blocking the parade.

Thus it seems odd that the defense attorneys portrayed their clients as heroic defenders of civil rights. James Castle told the jury, "The civil rights movement of today is embodied by the individuals at that table. They're being called criminals. I call them heroes."

If the civil rights movement of today is embodied by people who want to deprive other people of their civil rights, then we're in a lot of trouble. Civil rights belong to all of us, not just people who pass muster with Glenn Morris.

Ed Quillen of Salida ( is a former newspaper editor whose column appears Tuesday and Sunday.