Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties of Union (ACLU) of Michigan agreed to represent the Reverend Edward Pinkney in a controversial case over the limits of the First Amendment and is calling for Pinkney’s release from an Upper Peninsula prison on bond.
Pinkney–an African-American community activist in Benton Harbor–has been in the public eye over a series of debates about the direction of development in the city, race relations, and city politics. Pinkney has been a steadfast critic of the politicians and the judicial system in Berrien County, often exposing the way in which race impacts politics in the predominantly white St. Joseph and the predominantly black Benton Harbor.
As part of his ongoing organizing, Pinkey engaged in a recall campaign against a Benton Harbor City Commission. Out of that campaign, Pinkney was eventually charged with violating Michigan’s election law, to which he was sentenced a year in prison and five years of probation in May of 2007. He was allowed to begin serving probation at that time and was set to begin the prison time at a later date.
However, in December of 2007, Pinkney’s probation was revoked after his probation officer became aware of a newspaper article in which Pinkney criticized the judge in his case. That set off a process in which Pinkney was eventually resentenced to three to ten years in prison.
According to the court, Pinkney threatened the judge in the case when he criticized him. In a legal brief, the ACLU writes:
“In 2007, Rev. Pinkney was convicted of violating Michigan election law and sentenced to probation. But his probation was revoked, and he was resentenced to three to ten years in prison, solely because he wrote a newspaper editorial highly critical of the judge who presided at his trial. Quoting a passage from the Bible, Rev. Pinkney predicted that God would curse the judge and his family unless the judge “hearken[ed] unto the voice of the Lord they God to observe [and] to do all that is right.” Rev. Pinkney also expressed his opinion that the judge was racist, dumb, and corrupt. The
The statements Rev. Pinkney made in his newspaper editorial, while offensive to many are clearly protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States constitution. At the very least, whether his statements are protected constitutes a substantial ground for appeal. His statement regarding God’s curses upon the trial judge was not a “true threat” and the First Amendment does not tolerate a blanket prohibition on the ability of a probationer to criticize public officials.”
In the brief, the ACLU argues that is legal precedent for Pinkeny’s speech being protected. Moreover, it argues that a term of Pinkney’s probation is overbroad and does not survive Constitutional scrutiny. That term read:
“You must not engage in any assault, abusive, defamatory, demeaning, harassing, violent, threatening, or intimidating behavior, including the use, through any electronic or print media under your care, custody or control, of the mail, e-mail, or internet.”
The ACLU argues that this condition is an unconstitutional prohibition of legally protected First Amendment speech.
They are calling for Pinkney’s release on bond pending the resolution of his appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals.