[media id=11010] Monday night in Tempe: PHOENIX -- A night aimed at discussing First Amendment issues with the controversial Maricopa County Sheri
December 2, 2009

Monday night in Tempe:

PHOENIX -- A night aimed at discussing First Amendment issues with the controversial Maricopa County Sheriff ended with protesters disrupting the session and Sheriff Joe Arpaio walking out.

"People are saying this looks really bad for ASU, for one of the forward thinking journalism schools in the country," said student Elizabeth Shell.

The Arizona State University event in downtown Phoenix was part of a series at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication where guests respond to questions about journalism and media.

After 45 minutes of questioning Monday night, a group of protesters started to sing and chant in the back of the room, interrupting Sheriff Arpaio's response to questions about illegal immigration.

"Is this legitimate?" the protesters sang, to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody, a popular ballad by Queen.

During the outburst, Arpaio placed a University of Arizona hat on his head followed by an ASU hat.

"I thought this was going to be a situation not allowing this to go on," Arpaio said, referencing the disruption.

"You know what, this is ridiculous. I'm going to go," said Arpaio, before walking out of the forum.

"Was I forced," asked Arpaio, "Nobody forces the sheriff to stop, it was an agreement I made with the professors."

ASU Dean Christopher Callahan called the protest misplaced.

"I think it's very short-sighted, because these are people who are against Sheriff Arpaio's policies, and what they succeeded in doing is stopping focused, intense questioning of his policies," he said. "It just seems kind of dumb to me."

I have mixed feelings about these events. As you can see from the footage, Arpaio was just being pressed about why his office is stonewalling the Department of Justice in its investigation of Arpaio for corruptly using the threat of official retaliation against his critics. It would have been good to see his feet held to the fire on this.

On the other hand, Arpaio is such a contemptible figure -- the manacling of a woman in childbirth being only the most recent example -- that he deserves every expression of contempt that comes his way. (Besides, it was also a very funny stunt.)

Speaking (or singing) over the top of someone is rude, and it's inimical to democratic discourse. But this isn't a First Amendment issue, as some claimed, because it had nothing to do with government suppression of free speech. These were just people exercising their own free-speech rights.

As we've noted, Arpaio has even had citizens arrested for applauding his critics at County Supervisors meetings. Now that is a true threat to First Amendment rights. It would have been worth the time of a panel devoted to the First Amendment for Arpaio to have answered to that. Instead, he was just answering questions about how well his office issues press releases. No wonder people were frustrated.

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