Free speech

Amy Goodman wrote an excellent column about her arrest at the RNC. She describes the way in which the police violently arrested her as she was trying to find out why her two colleagues had just been (also violently) arrested. Repeated cries that she was from the press had no effect: “I repeated we were accredited journalists, whereupon a Secret Service agent came over and ripped my convention credential from my neck.” She feels, and I agree, that her and her colleagues’ arrests were serious violations of the First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press:

Behind all the patriotic hyperbole that accompanies the conventions, and the thousands of journalists and media workers who arrive to cover the staged events, there are serious violations of the basic right of freedom of the press. Here on the streets of St. Paul, the press is free to report on the official proceedings of the RNC, but not to report on the police violence and mass arrests directed at those who have come to petition their government, to protest.

It’s as if we live in some Orwellian world. This can’t possibly be happening in the United States of America, with all its rhetoric of freedom and democracy, can it? Sadly and frighteningly, it most definitely is happening right here in the United States.

In addition to arresting the journalists, police arrested hundreds of protesters as well:

Police in riot gear swarmed the area outside the convention center, deploying tear gas and distraction devices known as “flash bangs” in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

Since when is a “crowd” illegal? In fact, doesn’t the First Amendment guarantee “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”? I suppose that this is open to interpretation; how do you define “peaceably”? Unfortunately, it seems the police have the power to be quite lenient in defining it: as these events illustrate, apparently they can arrest on the pretext of perceived threat, no matter how unlikely it is that their so-called perception is accurate (are they really perceiving threat, or just saying they do?). It sounds to me like the police were by far more violent than the protesters themselves:

The protesters, chanting, “Let us march!” and “No blood for oil, U.S. off Iraqi soil!” were non-violent in their actions. At one point, approximately 100 people sat down in the middle of the street, in front of more than two-dozen officers on horses, making the peace sign with their hands and singing the star spangled banner.

There was one phrase in the news article that confused me: “At 5pm central, the protesters’ permit expired, but demonstrators refused to leave.” Permit? I was not aware that one needed a permit in order to protest legally (and that it is thus illegal to hold a protest on a public street without a permit), but apparently this has been the case for quite a long time. In searching for more information about this, I came across this informative article, by a professor at Syracuse University, titled “Permitting Protest/Silencing Dissent.” According to the article:

It was not until 1939 that the Supreme Court finally declared that the use of streets and sidewalks for political assembly and speech was constitutionally protected. And when it made this declaration it immediately qualified it. Public speech and assembly, the Court declared, has always to be “exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order….”

That qualification was left open to interpretation by the states and cities, and it has been widely interpreted over the years. The primary system in use now is the permit system, where groups wishing to stage a protest must apply for a permit beforehand. Their application can be denied, and cities have not hesitated to deny permits. This, if you ask me, is blatant regulation of speech. Speech in this country is not so free as I thought: it is illegal to protest without a permit, and cities do not have to issue you a permit if they think your protest will present any sort of danger. In other words, if you are perceived as a threat. This doesn’t leave much room for dissent with the government, does it? As it says in the article:

…it is not just the corporate media, not just the condescending pronouncements of the current White House, and not just local, sometimes brutish police forces or vigilante groups that seek to silence dissent in America, but the very structure of the law that has grown up around the exercise of First Amendment rights. Reasonable as it sometimes seems, that law is stacked against dissent. True power, the writers of First Amendment regulations know, includes the power to control where and when and how dissent takes place.

The restrictions on free speech in this country are far greater than I realized. I can only conclude that the people in power make laws to protect themselves – that is, the government as a collection of people in power – rather than all the many individuals that make up this country who are not in positions of power. A person protesting violence and war does not present a physical threat or a threat to their neighbor, but he or she is a threat to the status quo and to the current government.

Free speech is a crucial and fundamental right in creating a peaceful society, and we should not let our First Amendment rights be taken away, even if it means breaking the law.

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2 Responses to Free speech

  1. W says:

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  2. Watcher says:

    It may be of interest to you that the US is now prosecuting people who publishing written “obscene” material. I’m not talking films or cartoons – but mere novellas.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/28/us/28obscene.htmlThe US often prides itself on its freedom of speech, yet I cannot name off-hand any other Western country where the government can prosecute for publishing obscene texts to an adult audience (of course, there are probably several of them).

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