“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”
These are the immortal words spoken by Patrick Henry, 1775. Will things have to become as bad as they were in 1775 – or worse – before Americans open their eyes to what is being taken from them?
I ask because it seems that the sweetness of peace has put voters in the 19th Legislative District into such a diabetic coma they have never batted an eye over Craig Coughlin, who, as Woodbridge Township Attorney, authored an ordinance that blatantly infringed on our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and peaceable assembly.
Back in 2004, at the behest of the Woodbridge council, Coughlin wrote an ordinance requiring the organizers of any demonstration consisting of 20 people or more to get a permit from the Chief of Police two weeks in advance. Violators would be subject to fines of up to $250 and up to $1,000 for repeat offenders.
Incredibly, he defended the ordinance as constitutional!
“It complies with all of the series of cases which we reviewed,” he told the local newspaper. “We can have a compelling obligation to address public health and safety by a special restriction of time, matter and place. The ordinance to that effect is constitutional.”
Despite objections from township residents, the ordinance passed anyway, a story well known and oft-repeated all over Jersey and the U.S. But thankfully, two of the residents didn’t give up. They found an attorney expert on such matters, who repeatedly warned the township council and their attorneys that Woodbridge taxpayers would have to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees if the township lost in court. So what did Coughlin do for his clients (to wit, the township council and the taxpayers of Woodbridge)?
He replied, “We’re going to go ahead and let the process run its course…we filed a brief instead of vacating the ordinance or negotiating with them.”
Thankfully, the judge sided with the plaintiffs. (Yes, the case was heard in New Jersey).
“This court has little trouble concluding that the Woodbridge ordinance threatens to chill free speech by imposing monetary penalties on groups that fail to comply with an unconstitutional pre-registration requirement,” Judge William G. Bassler said in his decision. “Even the most cursory review of the Woodbridge demonstration ordinance reveals that it is both overinclusive and underinclusive with respect to achieving its stated goals.” Amazingly, the township council didn’t opt to appeal the good judge’s decision.
In the end, between plaintiff’s legal expenses and expenses incurred by outside attorneys contracted by the township, $40,000 of our hard-earned tax dollars were wasted to defend an ordinance that would have robbed us of our hard-won rights.
Neither this misadventure nor the rest of Coughlin’s record was ever publicly discussed in 2009, when Coughlin first ran for Assembly. He is again on the ballot this Tuesday, and again, it doesn’t seem anyone in the 19th District has been looking at his record in Trenton, much less talking about it. Do We the People not realize that every Election Day gives us a chance to look over the resume and record of every elected official and say what our Founders told King George and Parliament: You’re Fired!
Or as Patrick Henry put it, so much more elegantly: “Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?”
For my part, I agree with Patrick Henry: “…whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”