Free Speech Zones

Free Speech Zones July 29, 2004

Brian Leiter says that if us libertarian-minded bloggers aren’t blogging about the ridiculous “free speech zones” at the Democratic National Convention, we ought to resign from the human race. That’s a little strong, I’d say, but I certainly agree with him on the absurdity of what is going on. You can see pictures of the cage they’re putting protestors in here and a description of this hospitable place here:

Demonstrators who want to be within sight and sound of the delegates entering and leaving the Democratic National Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston this coming week will be forced to protest in a special “demonstration zone” adjacent to the terminal where buses carrying the delegates will arrive. The zone is large enough only for 1000 persons to safely congregate and is bounded by two chain link fences separated by concrete highway barriers. The outermost fence is covered with black mesh that is designed to repel liquids. Much of the area is under an abandoned elevated train line. The zone is covered by another black net which is topped by razor wire. There will be no sanitary facilities in the zone and tables and chairs will not be permitted. There is no way for the demonstrators to pass written materials to the convention delegates.

A lawsuit was filed on first amendment grounds against this, and the judge in that case had this to say:

“I, at first, thought before taking the view [of the site] that the characterizations of the space as being like an internment camp were litigation hyperbole. I now believe that it’s an understatement. One cannot conceive of what other elements you would put in place to make a space more of an affront to the idea of free expression….”

So what did the judge do about it? Zip. Nada. Zilch. Not a goddamn thing. He ruled against the protestors and said that putting them in this cage was justified by the risk to the safety of the delegates to the convention. Unbelievable.

This is hardly the first time this has happened. Such “free speech zones” (Mr. Orwell, call your office) are the norm at all events at which President Bush appears, and much the same will occur at the Republican National Convention in New York. In 1992, the Clinton administration tried to limit the protests of pro-life groups and keep them far away from the inauguration, but the ACLU filed suit on their behalf and won. And now you see why so many of us libertarian-minded folks don’t see much difference between the two major parties. They each relentlessly attempt to censor the other side when it serves their purposes. All of the talk from Republicans about “smaller government” and being a beacon of freedom and liberty to the world is simply bullshit, empty words that mean nothing to them. And all of the talk from Democrats about their passionate support of individual rights? Also bullshit. Don’t believe anything either one says about civil liberties. They will sell you out in a heartbeat.

And this is nothing new, by the way. Less than 10 years after the first amendment was passed guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, under the leadership of many of the very men who wrote those words, Congress passed and John Adams signed, the Sedition Act. That act said:

That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States…shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Several prominent newspaper editors were jailed under this act, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. During the civil war, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and arrested some 13,000 copperhead Democrats, a group that opposed the war and tried to broker a peace agreement. They were held in military prisons with no charges filed and no access to the legal system (sound familiar, Mr. Bush?).

In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act. That act declared it a crime to advocate by speech anything that

“shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S.”

This was interpreted to prohibit any criticism of the US entering World War I in Europe, and over 2000 people were arrested on these obviously fraudulent grounds. In one overlooked irony of the situation, the maker of a film entitled The Spirit of ’76, which depicted British atrocities against those who fought in the American Revolution, was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act. Why? Because, as the judge said, the film might cause Americans “to question the good faith of our ally, Great Britain.” In a case ironically titled U.S. v. Spirit of ’76, the filmmaker was sentenced to 10 years in prison. By the way, the Espionage Act remains on the books today and was upheld by the Supreme Court in a decision written by Oliver Wendell Holmes. In fact, it was extended in 1940 under the Smith Act to be applicable in peacetime as well, and during WW2, hundreds of socialists were arrested under those provisions.

So frankly, I don’t care which party it is, when they start talking about the glories of free speech, I start loading my gun. They will take it away in a heartbeat if they can, and in times of war, officially declared or not, both the courts and the public will roll over and play dead rather than stand up to such intrusions on the bill of rights. So when John Kerry gets up there tonight and reads eloquent words from the teleprompter about how America is a shining beacon of freedom to the world, remind yourself that his party and his convention has stifled free speech and penned up protestors in a cage surrounded by razor wire a half a mile down the road. And when Bush does the same thing in New York, remind yourself that he’s been doing the same thing for 4 years now.

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