Home Augusta County: Prosecution of body cam protestors is not how America works

Augusta County: Prosecution of body cam protestors is not how America works

Chris Graham
augusta county
(© Rex Wholster – stock.adobe.com)

The noise ordinance charges brought against 16 people protesting at the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office last summer were the result of complaints from neighbors and a nearby business.

That’s not, of course, how America works.

Sheriff Donald Smith and Commonwealth’s Attorney Tim Martin defended the decision to file charges and move forward with the effort at prosecution, which led to not guilty verdicts for all 16.

Martin told The News Leader that he wasn’t “concerned with the content of their speech. What we were concerned with was the disturbance of the peace in the neighborhood by the volume used with these megaphones.”

The complaints from neighbors began to pile up, he said, prompting the decision to bring charges.

Smith added, a bit condescendingly: “I let them say what they wanted. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t infringing on their rights.”

Until, that is, he did infringe on their rights, and hid behind the, well, the neighbors are complaining about the noise, as the reason for bringing the weight of the state against protestors.

Lost in this is what the protestors are advocating for: something pretty basic, that the sheriff’s office puts body cams on its deputies.

The push came in the wake of a pair of officer-involved shootings last year.

Smith has, oddly, resisted on this, at the same time saying it’s a priority, but not a top priority, listing deputy pay and improved communications capabilities above transparency.

The idea that people who think the sheriff should make body cams the top priority, and that they’d take to protesting in front of the sheriff’s office to get their point across, is the essence of why the Founders wanted to protect free speech from government intrusion.

And it’s not hard to think that at least some of the complaints from neighbors isn’t so much about noise as it is the content of the speech, and even the identity of the speakers.

Just saying it directly, Augusta County has an obvious racial divide, and a group of people waving Black Lives Matter flags in front of the sheriff’s office is unsettling to people who, you know, maybe aren’t all behind the idea that black lives actually matter.

This is why our Constitution protects free speech; it’s not to protect the ability of the majority to be able to express their views, but to protect the ability of the minority to express unpopular views.

Not that body cams are an unpopular view at all. It seems, rather, that the sheriff is in the minority on that one, the problem there being, he’s the sheriff, at least until he’s not.

This is your friendly reminder that the next county sheriff election is in November 2023, and if you think the county sheriff needs to prioritize transparency, that’s when you can get that message across.

You can also let the Commonwealth’s attorney know your thoughts next year on his decision to prosecute people using their free-speech rights to advocate for better government.

And between now and then, if you want to be noisy about it, go right ahead.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].