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April 2004
Are You in the Zone?

By Matthew Pascarella


Many groups are looking forward to having their voices heard at this summer’s Republican and Democratic national conventions. But many fear they will not be heard; that they will be restricted to certain areas far from where the conventions will take place, far from where their elected officials will be speaking, and beyond the narrow scope of the news media. In the context of expressing dissent against American policy abroad and at home, there should be widespread concern over the hypocrisy of infringing on free speech where the “beacon of freedom” resides. The reflex response to label individuals exercising their First Amendment rights as “unpatriotic” should also be cause for concern.

When the president or other high-ranking government officials have appeared over the last three years, in towns and cities throughout the country, the freedom of speech and right to protest has routinely been restricted to specific areas, regulated as “Free Speech Zones,” while supporters of the president often enjoy closer access to practice their First Amendment rights. Some civil rights and activist groups have complained that Secret Service agents often arrive in the town or city a few days before the official entourage and order local police to set up designated areas for protesters. During the visit, those holding signs such as “No Blood for Oil” or “Lick Bush in 2004” are herded into the designated Free Speech Zones, while those holding signs saying, “We love you Mr. Bush” or “God Bless You, Our President” are allowed to remain unfettered.

Usually, the “Free Speech Zones” are confined to places far from where the official is speaking, far from their motorcade, and far from the news media. In one case protesters were forced to stand behind a fleet of Greyhound buses. In another case protesters were told their Free Speech Zone was behind a dumpster a half mile down the road. In western Pennsylvania protesters were herded behind a six-foot chain link fence.

Through a dozen cases and an unprecedented nationwide lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging these “protest zones.” According to an ACLU press release, they find that Secret Service and other government officials have “discriminated against protesters during Presidential and Vice Presidential appearances” throughout the country, and that “because these cases are too numerous to litigate individually, the ACLU has asked a federal court for a nationwide injunction barring the Secret Service from directing local police to restrict protesters’ access to appearances by President Bush and other senior Administration officials.”

As stated by one of its own procedure manuals, the Secret Service is not supposed to segregate protesters. However, when local police officers have testified in these cases they almost always confirm the Secret Service’s orders to segregate protesters in a discriminatory manner. Stefan Presser, the ACLU legal director in Pennsylvania, said, “The Secret Service’s directives, which have the effect of deciding which messages are to be afforded favorable treatment, are completely at odds with our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech and rights of protest.”

The debate revolves around whether such actions are created for “national security” reasons or if this is a systematic effort to keep voices of dissent out of the camera’s—and public’s—view.

The ACLU insists the warding off of protesters is a political rather than a security threat: “Security is not an issue because anyone intent on harming officials would simply carry a sign with a supportive message or no sign at all.”

Perhaps this notion of political threat becomes quite clear when we watch news coverage of presidential visits and ask ourselves two quick questions: During this coverage how often do you see protesters? How often do you see supporters? Once we begin asking such questions, we begin to notice the problem is not just rooted in governmental policy, some restitution is owed to journalistic responsibility and integrity—or lack thereof.

United For Peace and Justice obtained FBI documents, from October 2003, that outline typical protest activities and organization. One document concludes, “Law enforcement agencies should be alert to these possible indicators of protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.” Per the general statements followed by specific directives in these documents, the right of expressing dissent in America seems to have morphed into an issue of terrorism, while presidential supporters catapult to an esteemed level of patriotism. To date, the FBI has yet to release any documents concerning those who gather to show support for the president.

In a variety of ways, the Free Speech Zone cases have forced certain groups to be more proactive in organizing protests during presidential visits. Groups such as the South Carolina Progressive Network and United For Peace and Justice have developed manuals to offer praxis for working with local police and government in order to exercise their First Amendment rights. In preparation, months ago, groups even met with New York City and Boston city officials to attain permits for rallies and marches at the site of the upcoming political conventions. Word on the street is that hundreds of thousands of people will show up at these demonstrations.

Perhaps this is a bit obvious: the state of communication in America is in dire need of reform. There has always existed a systematic effort to ignore voices of dissent and any type of grassroots movement in this country, yet it seems to me that in the last three years it has ballooned far beyond any remote acceptability. Just revisit recent history: one year and two months ago, the largest protests in the history of the world occurred. But if you blinked, you missed it. Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw were sitting in Kuwait waiting for war to start when millions of people were protesting only blocks from their Manhattan studios. Time Magazine’s celebrated “Year In Photos” failed to include even one photo taken of protests that drew 10 million people to the streets on February 15, 2003. Our president’s response was that the size of the protests is irrelevant: “it’s like deciding, ‘Well I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group.’”

History is replete with examples of limiting the exercise of free speech in the public arena. Some could argue, what does the use of free speech matter if no one can hear you and if history will not remember what you said? The problems of free speech in modernity can most likely be traced back, in part, to resting beneath the silently sliding blade of the American “news” media’s guillotine, but I would argue that we have the power and ability to place our heads where we like. History—both written and not written—has taught us that the greatest leaders never limit their voices in order to attain focus in the media or to the partitioned lines drawn up by some governmental agency. It is like the great Joe Strummer used to say, “History is waiting for you to write it,” to which I would add, “not for the media to report it.” So maybe, after all, it doesn’t really matter whether you are in the “zone” or not.

Matthew Pascarella
is a student at Marymount Manhattan College as well as a research associate and producer for Greg Palast, author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (see www.GregPalast.com).

 

 



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