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John Wellington Ennis

John Wellington Ennis

Posted April 20, 2009 | 02:26 PM (EST)

Does the First Amendment Protect the Right to Be a Dumbass?


Upon seeing John Ziegler in handcuffs, I was struck by the sheer suaveness of a simpleton who discovered that getting in the face of security with a camera will lead them to apprehend you. It was similar to how he looked on a reality dating show explaining his ideal relationship to a clearly perturbed woman: that marriage should be renegotiated every five years like a business contract. How did this not go over well?

This video shows Ziegler on the USC campus trying to get in to an event he was not invited to, nor granted press credentials for. The event was an award ceremony for Katie Couric at the Walter Cronkite center. (Why Katie Couric was being awarded for journalism eludes me.) That the event was reportedly honoring her interviews with Sarah Palin would be sufficient reason to get Ziegler angry enough to show up and cause a scene.

As I wrote here on the Huffington Post, Ziegler's documentary, Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and How Sarah Palin Was Targeted, offers little substance supporting his assertion that the media conspired to bring down Sarah Palin, other than Ziegler's own voiced-over rants.

Further, in my sit-down interview with Ziegler to give him the platform to make his case of media bias, he offered no substantive issues to champion Palin, and showed contempt for the idea of truth.

So it was not surprising to see him attempting to heckle Katie Couric, whom he blames for Palin's downfall. Despite original claims that this was shot by some other company from Orange County that has nothing to do with Ziegler, the microphone he is thrusting in people's faces is clearly feeding audio to the camera.

Nor was it surprising to see USC security guards lose their patience with Ziegler after he refused to leave despite repeated requests. They asked him, told him, then laid hands on him as he cries out that he is not blocking the sidewalk, and a Borat-like struggle ensues as Ziegler awkwardly attempts to hold his ground.

NOTE: At this juncture, yelling out "I JUST WANT TO ASK A QUESTION!" will not ingratiate you to local authorities. Nor will it grant you the credibility that will make a public relations person representing an event say, "OH! Well if you just want to ask a question..."

I have been in similar situations with a camera many times. As Spinal Tap keenly observed, there is a fine line between clever and stupid. In being confrontational with cameras, there is a fine line between making a point and looking like a dumbass. When you are up close to cops, security, or soldiers, and they say don't film, they mean it. They are asserting their authority in this situation. If you mock that authority, they don't like it. They will take it to the next level of deterrence, because if they don't stand up to you, who else might threaten the thin blue line between society and chaos? Many conservatives tend to sympathize with law enforcement in these situation, particularly when independent media types are manhandled outside of political conventions.

This is where strategies such as "tact" and "respect" come into play, antiquated concepts to John Ziegler. I have consistently found that if you acknowledge the officer's authority, step off like they request, and inquire as to how you can best get what you want, you will receive similar respect in turn.

Many conservatives seem surprised at the restrictions on non-credentialed media after seeing this happen to someone whose cause they sympathize with. I have been struck by the many outcries on Breitbart about how this proves we live in a fascist/communist society, and that the liberal establishment is clearly picking on an innocent guy for being conservative, or whatever.

No, this video shows what misbehavior in front of security guards on a private campus gets you. If you do not believe me, I suggest you go to a private university, stand outside an event you are not welcome at, and yell "I JUST WANT TO ASK A QUESTION!" Nobody is going to ask you how you voted in the last election, how much you make a year, or whether or not you teabag (not that there's anything wrong with that). You will make whatever authorities present uncomfortable, and they will remove you because you are freaking people out.

What's more, the claims that USC is a liberal autocracy are dubious. My first week there as a film student, there was a rally held by the Young Republicans, then the largest extra-curricular group on campus. The rally was in protest of a bill in California that would include homosexuals under job discrimination laws applying to other minorities. The homophobia was like school spirit before the USC vs UCLA football game. When I was writing for the USC paper (the regrettably named Daily Trojan), our opinion section regularly featured outspoken conservative views.

What this video shows is not reflective of USC campus security, who have to police the outlying South Central L.A. neighborhood in bulletproof attire besides telling unwelcome provocateurs to behave. This video is not reflective of a media conspiracy to silence conservative critics. This video shows a guy who craves attention being obnoxious and then being escorted away by security guards, as they are wont to do with someone causing a scene.

What is remarkable is that Ziegler was not charged or cited, and that he was able to walk away with the footage. Perhaps, if this were not a middle-aged white guy in a suit, and instead a young black guy with low-slung pants, there might well have been a different outcome to this standoff. I suspect many young black men who do not seek confrontation with cops might concur.

This type of pseudo-struggle does not bestow any type of journalistic legitimacy. Getting a reaction from people by showing up with cameras and getting in their face is not hard. Michael Moore flogged that horse into dog food decades ago. It is such a tired tactic of self-imposed importance, I parodied it in my documentary FREE FOR ALL! when I crashed Diebold headquarters asking questions.

Yes, we have a glorious First Amendment which says that congress shall pass no law abridging the freedom of speech or freedom of the press. And when an individual shows up uninvited on private grounds, congress is not involved in making laws that prohibit people from kicking a crackpot off their property. While an alarming number of citizen journalists have been restricted, harassed, arrested, even beaten in trying to report from their place in the world, this video is more like a Tom Green bit, and just as painful.

This is more misinterpretation of our country's founding principles. Like people protesting taxes while they receive tax cuts, this is maligned patriotism, with self-pitying posturing projecting a fallacious air of vindication. John Ziegler is a discredit to his cause, and any who embrace him should be embarrassed.