Sing, sing a song

Don’t worry if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. But do make sure you have a valid permit next time you’re in the California Capitol building and suddenly feel like bursting into song.

One group of high-school students is complaining that the California Highway Patrol and the Capitol’s chief sergeant-at-arms squashed their right to free speech, specifically their right to loudly sing patriotic songs in the Capitol rotunda whenever they damn well please.

“Students attending an educational conference in the California Capitol building were accosted by security for singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘God Bless America,'” according to a press release from the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal-aid group.

That’s right, students were accosted. The students were part of a conference called City on the Hill, organized by the conservative Capitol Resource Institute. On July 12, it seems that these students, “inspired by the grandeur of the setting and their feelings of patriotism,” were moved to “spontaneously” start singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

That’s when the Man, in the form of one Chief Sgt. Ronald Pane, told them to shut it; no singing in the Capitol without a permit. “They were not trying to create a disruption or to challenge the CHP’s authority,” Brad Dacus, spokesperson for PJI, told Bites. “The most beautiful time to sing the national anthem is not when it’s required, but when it’s spontaneous. No young adult should ever be stigmatized for singing the national anthem,” he added.

So, Bites called Chief Sgt. Pane and asked, “Why do you hate America?”

“I wish we could do something about the disinformation that’s being given out,” Pane replied, adding that he’d received “a lot of calls,” some of them quite angry, about his attempts to strangle the First Amendment.

He explained that there were offices near the Capitol rotunda where people were trying to work. How would Bites feel, he asked, if people just started coming in off the street and singing?

Evidently, Chief Sgt. Pane is not familiar with the work of Downtown James Brown.

No matter, if you want to sing, you’ve got to go through the process, Pane explained. “It’s a privilege, not a right, to sing in the Capitol rotunda. We can’t have folks coming into the Capitol whenever they want and start singing.”

As a rule, Bites figures it’s always a good idea to test the many “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions that are put on our First Amendment rights. But truth be told, Bites is a little skeptical of the real spontaneity of all this spontaneous singing.

One quick look at the Capitol Resource Institute Web site turns up a YouTube clip of students attending similar conference in 2006, belting out a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which sounds at least a little practiced.

Then there’s the Pacific Justice Institute’s somewhat selective enthusiasm for the First Amendment. This was the same organization that two years ago defended students at Rio Linda High and other area schools who were disciplined for wearing T-shirts with anti-gay slogans like “Sodomy is sin” to school. Not Bites’ favorite speech, but definitely covered by the First Amendment.

On the other hand, this is the same organization which mounted an aggressive campaign earlier this year to get the Sacramento Public Library board to require strictly filtered Internet access at all public libraries (see “Censor sensibility,” SN&R Frontlines, April 3, 2008). The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a few free-speech-friendly board members barely headed off PJI’s bid for censorship.

All of which makes Bites wonder if Dacus would defend anybody’s right to sing in the Capitol rotunda, or just a certain pedigree of patriot.

Would PJI send out press releases if Bites got busted for singing the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles,” or some commie fight song, in the Capitol Rotunda? “Spontaneous expression is spontaneous expression,” Dacus assured Bites.

OK, Pacific Justice Institute, just as long as you’ve got Bites’ back. One and a two and “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation / Arise ye wretched of the earth … “