A Look Back: Free Speech Zones

This is from the December 15, 2003 issue of the American Conservative, by James Bovard:

When Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up “free speech zones” or “protest zones” where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.

When Bush came to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.” The local police, at the Secret Service’s behest, set up a “designated free-speech zone” on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush’s speech. The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, though folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president’s path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign. Neel later commented, “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”

Bovard points out that if someone had wanted to harm the President he could have cleverly disguised his intentions by holding a pro-Bush sign.

I urge you to read the entire article from this conservative journal, taking note of the parts about FBI surveillance of peace groups — remember how the feds were watching the Quakers? — and the part about how citizens were being urged to turn in “suspicious” people to the FBI. And this part:

The Bush administration’s anti-protester bias proved embarrassing for two American allies with long traditions of raucous free speech, resulting in some of the most repressive restrictions in memory in free countries. When Bush visited Australia in October, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mark Riley observed, “The basic right of freedom of speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra visits this week by the US President, George Bush, and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they like just as long as they can’t be heard.” Demonstrators were shunted to an area away from the Federal Parliament building and prohibited from using any public address system in the area.For Bush’s recent visit to London, the White House demanded that British police ban all protest marches, close down the center of the city, and impose a “virtual three day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by anti-war protesters,” according to Britain’s Evening Standard. But instead of a “free speech zone”—as such areas are labeled in the U.S.—the Bush administration demanded an “exclusion zone” to protect Bush from protesters’ messages.

Throughout the Bush Administration the American Conservative was one of the few voices of reason from the Right on the issue of constitutional rights, separation of powers and authorities. Note that this magazine was launched by Patrick Buchanan and is currently running articles calling for “free market” solutions to health care. But credit where credit is due.

The point of the “free speech zones” was not security, obviously. The point was to suppress speech for political purposes. Just as it was the point of screening people at Bush rallies to be sure no one but loyal, registered Republicans were allowed inside. For eight years liberals were told that’s just how things were, and suck it up.

But now, confront some clearly agitated righties with the realities of physics, seating capacities and fire code laws, and President Obama is being compared to Hitler.

I remember during the 2004 Republican convention, the NYPD turned several blocks around Madison Square Garden into not only “no free speech” zones; they were also “no loitering,” “no photographing” and sometimes “no walking” zones. If it weren’t for Macy’s they might have roped off the entire area, but at least one could still shop at the Columbus Circle Macy’s. That said, one afternoon during the convention I left Macy’s and boldly walked down the street opposite Madison Square Garden — the President would not have been there at the time — just out of curiosity. I carried no signs and wore no buttons or other indicators of political preference. I was nowhere close to an entrance to Madison Square Garden and made no attempt to enter. I was just a 50-something woman walking down the street with a Macy’s shopping bag. There were no protesters, and the only people I saw going into and out of the Garden looked like young staffers. No VIPS. I pulled a camera out of my purse to take a picture of Madison Square Garden showing the “Republican convention” sign — from across the street — and the cops told me to get off Seventh Avenue and go somewhere else. No pictures.

So we liberals complained about this at the time, and most of the Right told us to suck it up.

My experience with leftie demonstrations goes back to the Vietnam era. Although I can’t say I was active in the antiwar movement then, I was sympathetic, and attended a few demonstrations, none memorable. More recently I took part in some big antiwar demonstrations in New York and Washington. However, I have long-standing issues with the way many people on the Left behave during demonstrations. I’ve never personally seen lefties get violent, but I’ve seen them get stupid and vulgar. I lot of leftie demonstrators are more interested in drawing attention to themselves than in doing anything effective for the cause. And I never again in my life want to be subjected to some young man hogging a megaphone and screaming “no blood for oil” incessantly for an hour and a half. And I mean that.

But I’ve also been in big leftie demonstrations that were confronted by hostile counter-demonstrators, and it was rare to see anyone get into a shouting match. Mostly the counter-demonstrators were just ignored, although in one march in Washington I remember some of us sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” for them. They didn’t join in.

So, yes, demonstrations tend to be messy and undisciplined, and there are always a few hotheads who make everybody else look bad, and I appreciate sometimes there are crowd control and security issues that may override someone’s need to vent.

But it would be really nice if we could all recognize that we have a common interest in preserving a right to free speech, and we also have a common interest in public order and civility and letting the other guy speak, too.

18 thoughts on “A Look Back: Free Speech Zones

  1. Ah, yes. The good old days, when Liberal’s were quarantined…
    “Children, how many times must I tell you not to feed the Liberal’s! It’s ok to mock them, though. You’ll be safe, they’re in cages. Here’s a stick, go ahead, poke ’em.”
    Now, if you ask one of these imbeciles to lower their voice, it becomes a 1st Amendment Right and they threaten you with the 2nd Amendment. You know the 2nd Amendment, right? It’s to guarantee the 1st Amendment Right. But only if the one carrying the 2nd Amendment Right firearm agrees with what you’re saying with your 1st Amendment Right.
    Have I got this right?

  2. A housekeeping note:
    I subscribe to this blog on my RSS reader (I use Google Reader), and the text of this post seems to have been hijacked by spam. It reads:
    “Discount Valium Without PrescriptionDiscount Valium OnlineDiscount Valium No RxDiscount ValiumCheapest ValiumCheap [etc…]”
    You might want to check for viruses.

  3. But it would be really nice if we could all recognize that we have a common interest in preserving a right to free speech, and we also have a common interest in public order and civility and letting the other guy speak, too.

    Bullies don’t care about the common interest. They only care about their interests. Bullying doesn’t usually happen all at once, because this would risk them not getting their way at all. And so it begins, a probe here, a probe there, pushing deeper and deepr, looking for resistance. It begins with hate speech, that we’re impotent to control. Corralling protestors into free speech zones is next. A few years later, this turns into goon squads that show up to disrupt meetings. Each of these steps is the squelching of the normal functioning of a democracy, which bullies have absolutely no use for.

    Someone is eventually going to get hurt. I was lying in bed this morning, wondering if I’d read about such an report in the news today.

    The only way to stop a bully is to confront them. Forget about being nice.

  4. Nice to see I’m not the only progressive who checks out American Conservative. They carried some of the best stuff from conservative Andrew Bacevich.

    My respect for conservatives (as distinct from political agreement) goes back to my own experience with Republicans I grew up with. Not to mention some I know here in TX who are as horrified by the rightwingers in their party (who dare to label themselves “conservative”) as we on the left are. One couple I know say openly that they’re embarrassed and dismayed by the behaviors of the bullies. More than a few voted for Obama in this very Republican area.

  5. FWIW, I use an RSS reader (my own custom hand coded, nowhere as sophisticated as Google version) and have no problems with spam.

  6. It has become quite a problem . I too was at a few Anti-Nam protests , and even saw cops gassing and beating people . We called that Free Speach . They called it crowd control . Now , the right wing is protesting in an most thuggish way , and disrupting the state of democracy in a way we were jailed for . How come there is no Police or even National Guard responce to all this ? How come it’s OK if you are “middle class” and not OK if you are a student ? Disruption is the same thing .

  7. Another Google Reader user here, and I can confirm the text of the post displays as pharmaspam.

  8. Sounds like Google’s taking the “free speech” thing way too far…. I confess I’m terribly un-technosavvy, and I just use Firefox to view this site. No pop-ups and no spammish weirdness.

    Re this post: it’s important to remember that anti-Bush protesters were disruptive on very, very few occasions. Once every several months or so, someone would stand up at a public event, having somehow slipped through the Third Reich-y paranoid screening, and shout at Bush or Cheney or Rummy or Rice… and then would be promptly arrested. Again I stress: this type of behavior during the Bush years was very rare, even though the need for it was far greater than today; after all, Bush’s sins led to torture and death and national shame. Obama’s sins, far as I can tell, stem from his being too wishy-washy, and sometimes from being too much like his horrid predecessor. And we all know that the pathetic, gullible Monster Shouters of today aren’t upset about that.

    (Side note: I love their bipolar signage, because it shows how dimly they understand… well, anything. “Obama’s a Nazi!” “Obama’s a socialist!” Apparently they see him as some kind of mutally-exclusive cartoon hybrid, like that CatDog TV character from a few years back.)

    Bottom line, I think the town-hall disrupters suffer from an incurable case of Sore Loser Syndrome. Them and their talking-points overlords, Glenn Beck and Rush and so on. They’re not mad about health care reform specifically; they’re mad that they’re no longer in power.

  9. CU, if you’re running Internet Explorer, I would look at the Add-On Manager, and disable anything that looks suspicious. This is a common hook point for legitimate and malicious code to extend IE’s capabilities. It’s also a performance drag, commonly attached to by third party software with extra unwanted junk. How you get to the Add-On Manager will vary by whatever version of IE you’re using. On mine (IE7), it’s found under Tools/Manage Add-Ons/Enable or Disable Add-Ons.

    Firefox has similar idea, but since I’m not presently running it, I can’t tell you how to access it. Good luck.

  10. I’ve checked the page source code and found no pharmaceutical spam in it. I’ve found such in pages in the past, but not this time. If you keep seeing it, let me know. It’s possible the spam is in the google rss feed. The other feeds don’t seem to be displaying today’s posts yet.

  11. Thanks everyone. Because that pop-up is as annoying as coming across Rush when you’re fiddling with your radio at a stop light – and it’s as if everytime you changed stations, Rush came on until you hit a button. AARG!
    I’ll try it and hope it works. I’ll probably do it later. Too much to do right now.
    Thanks again. 🙂

  12. There’s a crucial difference: the President is the president of the entire country, while congress answers to their local constituents. Therefore there is no out-of-towner faction at national conventions. Disrupting the local meetings and interfering with the right of locals to meet with their own personal representatives in congress is another matter entirely.

  13. I remember going to see Bill Clinton speak in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s. He would wade right into the crowds, some of whom were holding anti-Clinton signs saying “Whitewater this” and “Vince Foster that”. He didn’t care. Obama is the same way. They feel a need to be close to the people.

    Not George W. Bush. His public events were tightly controlled – “free speech zones” miles away for protesters. Even friendly crowds were kept at quite a distance. When you saw Bush close to crowds, they were pre-screened and carefully stage-managed, with lots of security close by.

    This contrast in how the two political partys interact with the people says it all in how they view the common people and the elites.

  14. Maybe my memory isn’t as good as I like to think it is, but I can only recollect Bush speaking to military audiences for the last 7 years he was in office. And that’s only because they wouldn’t dare make a whimper of objection to his policies, or his bullshit statements about freedom being on the march.. The best way to find yourself in the stockade would be to openly disrespect your Commander in Chief. Adulation of your Commander in Chief is mandatory in the military.

    Oh, and congratulations American taxpayers for your fine Christian service in supporting the farmers and families of Afghani opium growers. The Lord would be proud that even in hard times at home when millions of American families are nearing destitution our government can still hold fast to their Christian spirit and charitable giving by supporting opium growers to the tune of 300 million dollars. It’s only pennies a day…Bless you America.. the Lord loves a cheerful giver!

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