Constitutional rights more important than ever

The government does not get a free pass, even during a pandemic. It’s just as important now, perhaps more so, to follow the rule of law, and respect our constitutional principles.

As a Kansas Supreme Court justice said recently, “Public officials have an ongoing duty to adhere to the law. This duty doesn’t evaporate in a crisis — in fact, a crisis may heighten the duty.”

The U.S. Constitution protects free speech, expression and the right to travel. These phrases seem stodgy and maybe even a little boring. Does anyone care about speech and expression right now? Should they? People are anxious, scared and inundated by daily coronavirus reports. It’s nearly impossible to escape the harrowing stories around the world.

People’s lives are being upended. Is this really the appropriate time to talk about speech and expression? Absolutely. There is no better time than now. Take car parades, joyriding and car cruises, for example. They are constitutionally protected activities.

In what seems like something from a bygone era, car parades, cruising the drag and joyriding through backroads have become a very real thing again. Not just in Kansas, either. Teachers are parading for the students they miss.

Instead of dwelling on canceled proms or graduations, high schoolers are driving through towns, celebrating with posters and balloons on their cars. Families are sight-seeing again.

Car parades and joyriding are a way to stay connected, have a little fun and — heaven forbid — relieve the monotony of the stay-at-home orders. Done properly, a simple joyride keeps our minds healthy while flattening the curve.

I’m no epidemiologist, but a simple cruise around town seems unlikely to spread a virus, so long as you’re socially distancing.

But of course, and perhaps not surprisingly, that hasn’t stopped the government from getting involved. According to reports, the police broke up a teacher parade in Kansas City, Kansas; the city of Columbus, Kansas, initially tried halting car cruises but reversed course; and Chase County sheriff’s deputies apparently threatened to issue citations for people who “want to drive to Chase County and illegally go to the lake or other places that have been limited[.]”

In Osage County, local officials abruptly pre-empted an Easter parade. Kansas Justice Institute immediately got involved on behalf of Derrick Sowers. We emphasized that courts have been clear for almost a century: Wholesale bans on speech and expression are presumed unconstitutional. Overcoming the presumption is a tall task.

To Osage County’s great credit, they too reversed course. Osage County residents are freer today than even a few weeks ago.

The point is, speech and expression are always essential activities and constitutionally protected. Censorship does not keep Kansans any safer. It undermines our trust in the government.

Right now, speech and expression are more important than ever. Thankfully, there are people willing to stand up for our rights. Even during a pandemic.

Samuel G. MacRoberts is the general counsel and litigation director for the Kansas Justice Institute, a public-interest litigation firm.