Civil Liberties

Speakers Cornered

Orwellian "Free Speech Zones" violate the constitution


Presidential campaigns are when our would-be leaders speak most boldly to us about their plans for our country. Campaigns are also when Americans are most politically engaged, most eager to speak their minds. American elections have historically been carnivals of free speech. But perhaps no more.

Free speech has already been squelched by the new campaign finance reform law. The Supreme Court horrifyingly upheld a law that forbids citizens from taking out advertisements either for or against a candidate 60 days prior to election day. So much for the First Amendment's declaration that "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

Now the part of the First Amendment that says "Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances" is also imperiled. When the far Left The Progressive and far Right The American Conservative both decry the creation of free speech zones into which protesters are corralled whenever the President comes to a town, one should pay attention. These Orwellian "free speech zones" are typically far away from the venue where the visiting President is appearing, so that he can enjoy a Potemkin village experience in which he sees only an adoring populace through his limousine windows. Protesters can peaceably assemble, just out of the President's sight and earshot.

The rule is that authorities can place reasonable restrictions on demonstrations, marches and protests with regard to time place and manner, according to University of Virginia law professor John Harrison. "What they cannot do is discriminate on the basis of content. The decisions must be content neutral," says Harrison. And that's just the problem with recent demonstrations against President Bush—the restrictions placed on them do not appear to be content neutral, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

ACLU staff lawyer Chris Hansen says, "The Secret Service and local police violate the rights of protesters by moving people expressing views critical of President Bush away from him while those with pro-Bush views are allowed to remain close. It is unconstitutional for the Secret Service to restrict access on the basis of viewpoint."

Even when the Secret Service moves everyone carrying a placard either pro or con away from the President, those who are expressing no opinion—say, walking by on the way to lunch—get to remain closer. Ostensibly the Secret Service creates these free speech zones to insure the President's safety. Obviously if security were the real issue, then everyone, even casual passersby, should be excluded from the area near the President.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court seeking an injunction directing the Secret Service to stop discriminating on the basis of viewpoint. "The whole U.S. is a free speech zone," says Hansen. Let's hope that the Federal Courts will agree.