Muzzled in Montana!



By Richard Colman

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the American Constitution.  But the State Montana may be an exception.

In May 2018, a federal government official detained two American women, in a small Montana town, for speaking Spanish.  They were in a convenience store located about 35 miles from the Canadian border.

When a U.S. Border Patrol agent heard the two women speaking Spanish, he detained them.  He asked each woman to identify herself.  The two woman complied by showing their respective state-issued drivers’ licenses.  One woman was born in El Paso, Texas; the other was born in El Centro, California.

Authorities of the Border Patrol said the two women would not have been detained if they had been speaking French.

The two women filed a law suit against the Border Patrol.  Eventually, they received a monetary settlement from the American government.  The dollar amount was not disclosed.

A full account of the women’s detention can be found in The New York Times (Nov. 26, 2020).

Does the federal government have the authority to detain American citizens who are speaking Spanish (or any other language)?

If the federal government has the authority to treat Spanish-speaking American citizens differently from other citizens, how far can government go in abridging Constitutionally protected freedoms?  Can the government penalize American citizens for speaking Chinese, Japanese, or Yiddish?

Is the next step a government requirement that Spanish-speaking Americans have to wear the letter “L” (for Latino) on their clothing?

Such government action is not unprecedented.  In Nazi Germany, Jews were required to wear yellow badges bearing the letter “J.”  The “J” stood for “Jude,” the German word for Jew.

America is not — and must not — interfere with Americans who want to speak freely in any language.  There is no room for governmental totalitarian behavior in America. 

The Montana incident may have been propelled by a governmental desire to determine if the two women were illegal aliens.  Even if the women were in the United States illegally, there are, or should be, procedures for government agents to handle the detention of individuals who have entered the nation illegally.

Constitutional protections exist largely to prevent government from abridging citizens’


In America, is it appropriate for law enforcement officials to ask someone for identifying documents?  An exception can be made for citizens who have licenses to drive motor vehicles and are asked by police to show a driver’s license. 

An American citizen should be able to travel anywhere in the United States without being asked, by law enforcements officials, for identifying documents.  Again, an exception can be made for Americans driving motor vehicles.

Asking someone for his identity papers conjures up images of old movies in which a law enforcement office asks a person:  “May I see your papers?”  Americans do not need someone from government asking an American citizen to prove his identity.

The United States must avoid having some centralized database to keep track of individuals.  (Suspects arrested for — or convicted of — a crime are a different matter.)

The ugly specter of fascism in Germany and Italy was crushed in World War II.  There is no need to have fascism come to America.

Richard Colman is the founder and president of Biomed Inc., a biotechnology, publishing, and informatics company.  He is a biochemist and earned masters and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.  He lives in Orinda, California.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.

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c e voigtsberger
c e voigtsberger
7 months ago

Actually there is a ruling by the U.S. Supremes on the very question of a peace officer requiring identification and the citizen’s responsibility to respond to that request. It arose out of a case in Nevada wherein a police officer requested an individual to identify himself. The individual responded that he was a U.S. citizen and didn’t need to do so. He was arrested, convicted and appealed. The case was accepted by the Supremes and the decision was that state laws that required a person to identify himself were legal and the citizen had a duty to obey those laws. If the state was silent on the subject, the citizen was not required to identify himself upon request of a police officer. So it depends upon the laws of the state wherein one is located. I used to have the citation for the decision, but have misplaced it. Some lawyer should certainly with five minutes of research be able to cite the case and give a verbatim recitation of the decision. By the way, the law in Nevada requires an individual to identify himself upon request of a peace officer. The appellant lost his appeal and the conviction stood.