The ACLU of Montana filed a brief on Monday with the Montana Supreme Court arguing that a district court’s degrading and humiliating punishment of two men who lied about serving in the U.S. military is unconstitutional.
The two men -- Ryan Patrick Morris and Troy Allan Nelson -- falsely claimed in front of the court they had served in the U.S. military. In August of 2019, Cascade County District Judge Greg Pinski ordered that both men must stand at the Montana Veterans Memorial for eight hours on each Memorial and Veterans Day until the end of their sentences, wearing placards that read, “I am a liar. I am not a veteran. I stole valor. I have dishonored all veterans.”
The Montana Office of the Public Defender, which represents Mr. Morris and Mr. Nelson, appealed the legality of their sentence to the Montana Supreme Court.
In its brief, the ACLU of Montana argued that the degrading and humiliating punishment imposed by the district court violates the men’s fundamental right to human dignity and their right to free speech under the Montana constitution.
“There’s no doubt that what these individuals did was wrong, but they still have constitutional rights that the state cannot and must not violate,” said Caitlin Borgmann, ACLU of Montana Executive Director. “The punishments intentionally designed by the district court to shame and demean these men violate their fundamental right to human dignity and their right to free speech.”
The brief notes that the Montana Supreme Court has recognized that the dignity clause in Montana’s constitution “commands that the intrinsic worth and the basic humanity of persons may not be violated” for any reason. This means that, whatever purposes criminal punishment may play, its purpose cannot be to humiliate and deny a person’s dignity. As such, with this brief the ACLU of Montana asked the Montana Supreme Court to declare that the outlandish and demeaning punishments imposed by Judge Pinski run afoul of the Montana constitution’s command.
In arguing that the punishment violates Morris and Nelson’s right to free speech, the ACLU of Montana’s brief points out that under both the federal and state constitutions, no person may be compelled to engage in speech or expression against their will. “Shaming penalties” and “scarlet letter” punishments, such as the one imposed by the district court, should be struck down as unconstitutional compelled speech.
“We hope to see the Montana Supreme Court strike the public shaming components of Morris and Nelson’s sentences as contrary to their constitutional rights to human dignity and free speech,” said Borgmann.
Co-counsel to the ACLU of Montana are Kyle Nelson and Charles Cromwell, both of whom are veterans of the U.S. military.