Civil Liberties

The Sound of Silence


At the recent Ku Klux Klan "rally" in Manhattan, the participants were probably outnumbered by the hot dog vendors. Eighteen Klan members were greeted by scores of reporters and photographers, hundreds of police officers, about 2,000 spectators, and 6,000 or so counterdemonstrators.

"I never saw a Klansman before and I still haven't," one disappointed protester complained to the The New York Times. "I just see the points moving back and forth."

Thanks to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, there wasn't anything to hear, either. The white-robed, pointy-hatted Klansmen stood in silence for 75 minutes, protesting the city's enforcement of a 154-year-old state law than bans public gatherings of people wearing masks.

Giuliani's refusal to let the Klansmen complete their ensembles reflects his general approach to speech that offends him. Whether it's pornography in Times Square or protests outside City Hall, the mayor favors suppression in the guise of regulation. This strategy allows him to applaud freedom of speech in theory while obstructing it in practice.

In the Klan's case, the city initially refused to grant a permit for the rally, citing security concerns as well as the mask law. "They all have the right to make these statements, and we have a right to disagree," Giuliani said after the Klan sued the city in federal court. "But I also understand how many cops that's going to cost us, and how there may be a robbery someplace that we don't interrupt or a person dying of a heart attack that we don't get to, or a shooting that goes on that we have one less cop there."

Notice how Giuliani's lip service to free speech is immediately contradicted by his objection to diverting law enforcement resources, which suggests that the city would take a dim view of any protest that required a police presence. The possibility of violence by counterdemonstrators, another concern to which he alluded, likewise could be cited as a reason to block controversial speakers in general.

The city argued that allowing demonstrators to wear masks would make them more apt to break the law, while the Klansmen maintained that they had a First Amendment right to express their odious views anonymously. The district court agreed with the Klansmen, noting that "they may be subject to harm, both physical and economic, if they are unmasked and their identities are known."

Giuliani derided that decision as "another example of the ideology extending from the '60s" that says "people don't have to take responsibility for what they say or do." Although the appeals court sided with the city on the mask issue, Judge Jose Cabranes may have had Giuliani in mind when he noted that the case raised "questions not as simple as sometimes portrayed."

The mayor's attitude in the Klan case was reminiscent of his contemptuous response when a federal judge ruled that the city could not block the so-called Million Youth March, a showcase for noted bigot Khallid Abdul Muhammad. The city, which had tried unsuccessfully to stop a similar rally in 1998, this year again refused to give Muhammad a permit.

At first Giuliani said Muhammad–with whom he has exchanged insults on more than one occasion–had failed to submit a proper application. Then he said Muhammad was likely to incite violence.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin, who noted that the violence at the 1998 event seemed to have been provoked by overzealous police, rejected this attempt at prior restraint. "At least as frightening as the rhetoric of Mr. Muhammad," Chin wrote, "is the possibility of a society where the right to speak publicly can be denied on the basis of administrative whim, personal dislike, or disapproval of anticipated content."

Calling Chin's ruling a "totally unwarranted" "distortion of reasoning,"Giuliani said the judge was "putting his head in the sand." When the appeals court agreed with Chin, ordering the city to allow Muhammad's rally (which took place on September 4 without violence), Giuliani called the decision "irresponsible," adding, "Those judges have their heads in the sand."

Yet Giuliani has faced more than a few judicial rebukes for violations of the First Amendment, including his attempts to ban a bus ad that mocked him, to prevent a lawful protest by taxi drivers, and to bar AIDS activists from the steps of City Hall. Wherever his head is, it's a place where the light of free expression and vigorous debate rarely shines.