In the game “Monopoly” you can play as the race car piece and pass “Go” and collect $200. You can purchase Marvin Gardens, or even Boardwalk. If you’re lucky, you might land on Free Parking.
In the case of Michigan State law student Jared Rapp, however, back in 2008 parking his car on school public property was not exactly “free.” Apparently neither was his speech–free, that is. The simple act of disputing a parking ticket was more like getting a “Go to Jail” card.
Rapp fought his ticket in court. He lost, then won after appealing; it cost him a lot of time and money to battle against the Goliath-like university and its Gucci-heeled lawyers. Then MSU appealed, so now he’s taking his case further–up to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Here are the facts: In September 2008, Rapp received a parking ticket at Michigan State. Upset about the ticket, he confronted a parking employee who was busy having another illegally parked vehicle towed; Rapp walked quickly toward the employee in what he described as “aggressively.” Rapp yelled, “Did you give me this ticket?” and demanded to know his name. The employee called for a police officer; at no time did Rapp touch anyone or anything. During the 10 minutes it took for the police to arrive the employee simply continued doing his paperwork and waiting for the tow truck (and cops!) to arrive. Rapp stood near the employee and snapped pictures of him with his camera-phone.
Jerod was charged with violating MSU Ordinance 15.05, which provides: “No person shall disrupt the normal activity or molest the property of any person, firm, or agency while that person, firm, or agency is carrying out service, activity or agreement for or with the University.”
He was convicted by a jury and ordered to pay $873 in costs, contribute 80 hours of community service, and was put on two years probation.
In his appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court (the Court of Appeals decision can be read here – MSU v Rapp) Rapp basically claimed that his conduct amounts to “speech” (conduct can be the equivalent of speech) under the First Amendment and that he can’t be fined or prosecuted because he had a right to stand in a public place to take pictures of an employee and to ask his name. He contended that “disrupting” an employee is too vague, and is the same as “disturbing” or “annoying” and that only “interfering” with (or assaulting) an employee can be considered an illegal act.
MSU, in contrast, argues the ordinance is constitutional, limited to conduct that occurs in the context of protecting employees while doing their jobs, i.e. enforcing the parking laws. Not all speech is protected or “free” – after all, as the old saying goes, “You can’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre” or you’ll cause a panic. That would be an example of illegal, unlawful speech; so is perjury, for example.
The Court heard oral arguments in the case last month. Most legal experts believe that Rapp has a good shot at prevailing, since the word “disrupt” is quite vague – after all, if this is illegal, then why can’t just about any school employee who is being “bothered” by someone, at any time or for any reason (or perhaps for no reason at all) be accused of criminal “distruption”? Employees could call cops whenever they didn’t like what the person was doing or saying–maybe even while holding protest or picket signs or singing "Hail to the Victors." There would be no end to the limits against free speech.
Unlike Monopoly, the stakes in this game are real; Rapp should be applauded for testing the contours of a criminal law that suppresses free speech. If a mere parking enforcement official can have a student ticketed or arrested for yelling at him and taking his picture, then what’s left for the rest of us ... besides Baltic Avenue, bankruptcy, and B&O railroad?
(Richard G. Marcil www.MarcilAttorney.com 586-412-0444 is an attorney in Clinton Township practicing in criminal defense, divorce and family law, civil rights, and personal injury cases, as well as juvenile, probate, real estate and business litigation.)