The First Amendment protects a person's right to engage in public speech anonymously. Does that mean a city proposal to regulate the wearing of masks is unconstitutional?
Probably not, because the measure would not impose an outright ban on devices that conceal identity. In fact, the bill says it is not intended to limit that right during protests and rallies. It is appropriately narrow and would apply only when the masks are "worn with the specific intent of avoiding identification during the commission of unlawful activity."
But many of Pittsburgh's most well-meaning citizens oppose the restriction, and they made good arguments against it at a City Council hearing Wednesday where members considered the rules as a prelude to the G-20 summit later this month. David Meieran, a veteran protester, wore a polar bear mask and asked members if they could tell whether he was wearing it because he wanted to commit a crime or because he is fearful of the impact of the melting polar ice cap.
His question goes to the real concern: Protesters are worried that police will use the no-mask law to stop them from engaging in lawful demonstration because they'll assume that anyone wearing a face cover is up to no good. Overreaction on the part of police, instead of being a remedy, could be a prescription for disaster. Those in charge must make sure that every officer knows that simply wearing a mask is not a problem.
Police need to be able to keep order, and that includes making sure that individuals who are up to no good can't use disguises to escape culpability for illegal acts. The mask ordinance is one tool that, properly utilized, can help.
The same is true for a companion measure that would prohibit carrying pipes, concrete, locks and other items that could be used to block streets and hinder emergency personnel. It is also logical likewise to restrict the possession of "noxious" substances like animal waste, blood and rotten eggs along with acids, gasoline and gases.
Let's face it. Authorities aren't worried about the locals, the protesters who apply for permits, speak at council meetings and are known for their participation in countless good causes over the years. Think Molly Rush, the Raging Grannies and the Thomas Merton Center, to name a few.
No, they are worried about people who may come to town with the goal of disruption. The G-20 is an unusual gathering. Police deserve to have some unusual means to deal with it, as long as they follow the rules -- and as long as the rules are temporary and expire when the world leaders leave town.