by Pat McGeehan, Hancock County Delegate

John Adams once coined a phrase which perhaps best personifies the American form of order: “A government of laws, and not of men.” His meaning behind this phrase was quite clear. Laws should be broad, they should apply to everyone, and they should never be arbitrarily applied to citizens by the various whims or the different ‘feelings’ of the officials in government, charged with their enforcement. In other words, everyone should be equal under the law, and justice must be blind.

As Americans, we have a document which is supposed to secure this concept for us: The Constitution. Above all else, Constitutional Law was always meant to guide our government officials in their actions—regardless of whether one is a Republican or Democrat. Unfortunately, as time has progressed, this ‘Rule of Law’ has diminished, and we have moved farther and farther away from the Constitutional restraints and safeguards our forefathers once established.

A glaring example of this deviation from Constitutional law has recently taken place in our own community. This is the recent case of a man from New Cumberland, Mr. David Jones—a retired Air Force veteran of 20 years, with not even a parking ticket to his name. In late June, Mr. Jones was arrested in his home, and placed in jail. His crime? Under an obscure West Virginia law, Mr. Jones was charged with two felonies, for two ‘posts’ he made on his personal Facebook page, statements written on the internet over 12 months ago—statements that are alleged to have been "retaliation” against various government officials. Notwithstanding the complete absence of harm ever coming about from anything this man ever typed on the internet, Mr. Jones had his bail set at 50,000 dollars. Unable to pay this steep sum of money, he sat in prison for nearly three weeks—until he was finally released, after his bond was suddenly dropped to Zero. The charges against this American veteran however, remain.

To understand this case, and why it matters, we should examine a bit of background information. Though I never personally knew this gentleman, Mr. David Jones—I knew of him. In fact, I venture to guess most people in local government and who are involved in politics in our area, have known of him as well. This is because he is a very opinionated person.

For several years now, it is clear that Mr. Jones has used his personal Facebook page to post statements that are very critical of government officials in our community. In a sense, he is more or less a political activist, or a political protester, and tries to draw attention to government policies he disagrees with. One way he has done this is to use extremely controversial language on the internet. Often times, the language he uses is very malicious and vitriolic. And sometimes, the language he has chosen to use is downright hateful, and can come across as threatening and viscous. I came to know this because, over the years, he has written some pretty nasty words about me as well.

Personally, I do not condone such language. I believe there are far better ways to get one’s point across when it comes to debating government policies. Using vicious language is neither virtuous, nor productive. Regardless though, when one takes everything this gentleman has written over the years all into context, it becomes very evident that Mr. Jones utilizes extreme hyperbole, and exaggerated statements to protest and draw attention to political issues he cares about (He has even thrown up signs in his front yard that criticize elected leaders, including myself). Over time then, it’s safe to say—Mr. Jones’ heavy-handed criticism has probably angered many different officials in our local government. Because of this, emotional-thinking and emotionally-charged motivations can sometimes begin to set-in with government officials, and the way these officials react—even if these reactions are carried out with the best of intentions.

However, one tenet of the ‘Rule of Law’ is that Justice must be blind. For it to remain so, we should remember, government officials cannot think and act with emotion. Simply because a person may be disliked, or even hated—we must always strive to think and act with pure logic, based on objective, sound reasoning. Not out of emotion. And certainly, not out of fear. That is our duty, if we are to uphold the Rule of Law.

Furthermore, there is a vast difference between language…and action. One is specifically protected by the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right of free speech. Just two months ago, in a near unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court made a ruling to throw out criminal charges against a Pennsylvania man who had written threatening statements on Facebook and the internet. In fact, this case before the Supreme Court was over a man who had not just used malicious, threatening-like language—this man had actually made direct threats against his ex-wife, along with other private citizens. The Supreme Court ruled the man had committed no crime, and that what he wrote on the internet is indeed, protected free speech. Why? Well, quite simply, because of the 1st Amendment. In fact, time after time, the US Supreme Court has consistently held, that even the most malicious, hateful, and violent language some individuals may choose to utilize, must be permitted—not suppressed.

Now, is it moral to use such language? In my opinion, clearly not. But sometimes we can get caught-up only looking at the trees, and we forget to see the forest. Nearly every official in government must take the Oath of Office when they first assume their duties. “To support and defend the Constitution of the United States…So help me God.” This should be a sacred, and precious thing to always cherish—for defending the Bill of Rights is our first and foremost obligation in office. But all too often anymore, the Oath has become just words. And, in reality, the Oath of Office only means anything at all, if it is valued and upheld, precisely when it may be very inconvenient to do so.

If we are to stay true to those famous words from John Adams, to remain a country of ‘laws, and not of men,’—then we must always try to remember, that when we protect those in our society that may be scorned, that may be disliked, and who may even be hated—but have caused no physical harm—then we also strengthen and protect the very fabric of our American way of life.

Pat McGeehan represents the 1st District in the WV House of Delegates. A graduate of the US Air Force Academy, he is an author and a former military intelligence officer. He resides in Chester.