"Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
If there’s one thing the United States stands for, it’s unfettered free speech. It is vital to a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the increasing use by government and law enforcement officials of "free speech zones" and other stifling tactics to purge dissent has largely undermined the First Amendment’s safeguards for political free speech.
For example, President Bush’s Presidential Advance Manual outlines the specific strategies his administration has used to "minimize the demonstrator’s effect." It includes such Orwellian tactics as selling tickets exclusively to presidential supporters and creating "rally squads" of supporters who will surround and drown out protesters with pro-Bush chants. The manual also discusses the strategy of asking local law enforcement to create a designated protest zone, "preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade route."
Free speech zones have been employed by both Democrats and Republicans at past political conventions. This year, however, Democrats face the embarrassing possibility that they will be the only party actually caging dissenters. Protesters at the upcoming Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver in late August will be corralled into caged "free speech zones" made of chicken wire and chain link fences which are located more than two football fields from the delegates’ entrance. Those who attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights outside this makeshift cage, which is partially obscured by trees and sculptures, will be arrested. (Ironically, protesters at this year’s Republican National Convention will not face a cage or even policemen in riot gear.)
Even the news media, once considered a vital stronghold for ensuring accountability in government, is also conspiring to keep protesters out of sight and earshot. Members of the media are urging Denver officials to move the designated protest zone away from where media tents will be situated, reportedly due to concerns that loud demonstrations could disrupt broadcasts or that reporters and photographers could be doused with tear gas or pepper spray if there are confrontations between police and protesters.
With the news media having seemingly sold out the First Amendment rights of protesters for the sake of their own financial interests, it has been left to a handful of civil liberties organizations and protesters to challenge these restrictions in court. The courts have previously ruled that protests can be restricted in keeping with a reasonable time, place and manner. But if you’re two football fields away and no one can see or hear you, it renders you all but invisible and irrelevant — which, of course, is the point of these so-called free speech zones.
It is only a slight exaggeration to refer to free speech zones as temporary concentration camps. Although the Holocaust has largely transformed our modern understanding of concentration camps, they were historically intended to "concentrate" populations of "dangerous" individuals into a small area so the government could monitor them more easily.
The 2004 DNC in Boston utilized such a camp, with surveillance cameras to record the individuals inside the cage. Conditions were so appalling that U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock referred to the designated protest zone as a "grim, mean, and oppressive space," which had the overall feel of an "internment camp."
As one visitor to the 2004 DNC free speech zone remarked:
Last night, I had my first direct experience with the so-called free speech zone. It left me with one conclusion: whatever you do, do NOT go inside. It’s not only a blatant offense to free speech, but also highly dangerous and unsafe. I would suggest protesting anywhere in Boston but inside of it. No amount of hyperbole can accurately describe how disastrous the interior actually is. It’s like a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie — a futuristic, industrial detention area from a Mad Max film. You are surrounded on all sides by concrete blocks and steel fencing, with razor wire lining the perimeter. Then, there is a giant black net over the entire space.
Concentrating, monitoring and minimizing the effects of protests are the real reasons for using designated protest zones. Protesters are only perceived as dangerous because their message challenges the status quo. It’s the message that is feared. Thus, efforts to confine and control the dissenters are really efforts to confine and control their political messages, whatever those might be. This is true whether they’re challenging environmental policies, free trade agreements or, as in Denver with the upcoming DNC, the political campaigns of candidates running for public office. And if Barack Obama is serious about being an active defender of civil liberties, he needs to openly condemn the fencing off of protesters at the upcoming DNC.
By severely restricting protesters’ access to the media and to convention delegates, free speech zones destroy the power of dissenting viewpoints to foment debate and bring about change. Just imagine if the hundreds of thousands of participants in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, had been forced into free speech zones. There likely would not have been a 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The right of political free speech is the basis of all liberty. It’s the citizen’s right to confront the government and demand that they alter policies. But first, citizens have to be seen and heard. That’s what "we the people" is all about. And only under extraordinary circumstances should free speech ever be restricted.
Caging people who want to exercise free speech goes against the entire concept of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights and what the revolutionary generation stood for. When political protest is caged, it’s not just the rights of a few protesters that are at stake. The very definition of freedom is in danger. Freedom cannot be exercised from within a cage.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization.