How Free Speech Is Done


Dispiriting account of how official "free-speech zones" are being used to contain dissent at this summer's G-8 summit in Brunswick, Georgia:

Organizers of protests…must put up refundable deposits equal to the city's estimated cost for clean up and police protection. Demonstrations may only last 2 hours, 30 minutes. Signs and banners may not be carried on sticks that might be brandished as weapons. And the signs may not be larger than 2-by-3 feet.

Reason's Jesse Walker looked at this phenomenon a while ago.

NEXT: George Will's Pessimism

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. zorel,

    Let’s see; via a false analogy you try to smear me an anti-homosexual bigot (Andrew is an example of such). Second, there is nothing wrong with a slippery slope argument so long as the slippery slope exists. Finally, a “free speech zone” is by itself an affront to free speech; this is evidenced by the fact that they tend to be placed in areas miles away from the actual events.

  2. Just a question. I think we all agree the govt cannot and should not ban free speech, but does it have the power to regulate it? And if so, is that what is happening in this case?

  3. Zorel-
    If the government makes it illegal to protest the government without first paying money to the government and getting formal permission in the form of a permit then yes, they did outlaw free speech.

    Let’s not get bogged down with semantics here.

  4. Eric,

    Your government regulates speech a lot (I cannot think of a government that does); so the answer is that they may regulate it (think of commercial speech for an example). Its the manner that they do such which is at issue here.

  5. If it’s regulated, it ain’t free.

  6. Sure, even Nazis are not ALWAYS going around breaking windows of Jewish shopkeepers. Let them rough up a few Jews first, ruin a few businesses. Then arrest them. We can’t judge ALL Nazis by the actions of a few, can we? That would be extremist.

  7. Jean Bart,

    “..via a false analogy you try to smear me an anti-homosexual bigot …”

    I do no such thing. I was merely trying to show that the other side (in this case, Santorum) also uses the “slippery slope” argument when it favors their cause. It surprises me that you assumed so since I never said that. So, there is no smear job going on here. And I am not sure who the ‘Andrew’ is.

    In writing a comment, it is not often possible to list ALL the things that I am NOT implying – so if you thought I did so, I am now clarifying that I was not.


    You don’t have unlimited “free speech” rights anywhere in the world (except in the imaginary world inhabited by civil libertarians). First Amendment states “congress shall pass no laws …” There is something about ‘peacefully assemble’ in the first amendment.

    The guys worried about ‘al-Sadr’s free speech in Iraq’ when he was inciting violence, can’t think about the other side of the argument. Wonder why you don’t shout ‘fire’ in a movie theatre to exercise your right to free speech!

    The city govt. is taking measures to ensure the property of its citizens is not trashed. The thugs have a proven track record. They are only being asked to pay a refundable deposit.

    Can I demand my local school letter to publish my opinions, and whine about free speech if they decline?

    These goons want to come and protest on the city property (and are very likely to trash) and the city is taking steps to minimize the cost to its tax payers. What is wrong with that?

  8. Jean Bart,

    You must by this point have a most impressive collection of strawmen. I wonder if you put little hats on them and have tea parties.

    History reinforces my point: Outbreaks of protest related violence have been used as excuses to restrict or channel further protest. I would point to the changes in laws and use of troops related to Haymarket riots of 1880’s as a good example of this.

    The strategy of protesters in the last 40 years or so differ from those of the previous era. The modern professional protester seeks not to create a mass protest but rather to create a mediaphillic one. It is more important to them to get one person shown on national media than it is to get 10.000 people marching down the street. To that end they have increasingly resorted to disruption of traffic, trapping people in buildings, shouting down speakers, and rioting.

    The First Amendment makes explicit the right to “peacefully assemble” once people start chunking rocks the constitution no longer protects them. Politically, the expectation of violence based on previous behavior gives moral authority to those wishing frustrate the protest. Free speech zones are just the latest in a long history of attempts to control protest. Whether the authorities control protest for legitimate reason of public safety or as a means of stifling the protest it is the actions of the protesters that ultimately provides the political and moral capital for them to do so. Therefor the best protection for ones own free speech is to refrain from violence oneself.

  9. Shannon Love,

    “You must by this point have a most impressive collection of strawmen. I wonder if you put little hats on them and have tea parties.”

    The only one with strawmen for friends is you.

    “History reinforces my point: Outbreaks of protest related violence have been used as excuses to restrict or channel further protest.”

    Actually, that wasn’t your point at all. You argued that this was some singularly new phenomenon. Can’t you even lie effectively?

    “The strategy of protesters in the last 40 years or so differ from those of the previous era. The modern professional protester seeks not to create a mass protest but rather to create a mediaphillic one.”

    Yes, that’s right; in 18th century France and 17th century England, no protests were done for the eye of the media. Please; grub street and cheap presses were specifically targeted by protesters – be they anti-catholic mobs in England or bread rioters in France. Your ignorance of the historical record is telling.

  10. Shannon Love,

    BTW, if you don’t think violence was committed in America in the 18th century for purposes of media coverage, then you know nothing about tarring and feathers incidences, violence against British colonial officials, the Boston Tea party, etc.

  11. Of course, if the dissenters didnt smash up the area at every frikking G-8 conference, maybe we wouldnt be seeing this.

  12. Unfortunately, most protesters these days have no interest in “speaking.” They seek either to silence the speech of others by “disrupting” some function or they seek to create media attention by provoking a confrontation preferably by setting something or somebody on fire.

    In the protest sub-culture’s egocentric world view, they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want and everybody else can just shut up and take it. They have no respect for the rights of political opponents or people just trying to go to work. Their “speech” has rapidly evolved into physical disruption of the speech of others. This in turn has created the moral and pragmatic justification for such dangerous practices as free speech zones.

    This is good example of why manners matter. Giving at least ritualized respect to others is the best protection for ourselves.

  13. Shannon Love,

    Your typically a historical approach is laughable. A brief perusal of American history (much less the world) on these matters going deep into the 19th century will demonstrate that “protest” has never been the “polite affair” you attempt to make it to be.

  14. Now just wait one second! Just because some people have abused the system doesn’t mean that the system can pre-emptively shut down our rights. Prior restraint is the issue. You’d have thought the the Civil Rights Act would have gotten rid of “since other people who look like you do this…” thinking.

    If protest speech is stopped with prior restraint or time and place limits, and if political speech is shut down sixty days before an election, and if I can’t hear about Sphincterine? on the radio, what does the first amendment really protect?

  15. “Robert Randall never knew free speech could cost so much …”

    first sentence of the article – says everything about the attitude of these anarchist (leftist?) “protest” gangs.

    With rights come responsibilities, actions have consequences, etc.

    After trashing every city that hosted these kind of meetings/summits, what were they expecting? the people of Brunswick, GA, to pick up the tab for cleaning after them?

    The free speech of these thugs is not more valuable than the property rights of the local people. It is a “refundable” deposit – if they behave they will get the deposit refunded.

  16. Usoe,

    I am totally with you on the campaign finance reforms – that is a direct contradiction of the First Amendment.

    As for these protests, no one is “banning” them. They want people to pay refundable deposits (and pay daily rent or whatever for public parks – the same as for people who host parties) so, they will have money to cleanup the mess. Surely First amendment does not give people the right to trash a town in protest. I believe there is something about “peacefully assemble to petition the govt.” in there.

  17. zorel,

    I believe the fear here is that the government will use these laws to cover themselves against even the most peaceful dissent; and indeed, the vast majority of protesters are peaceful it appears.

  18. Anyone see Arrested Development last week?
    Very amusing satire on the “free speech zone”.

  19. The day we can’t carry signs on sticks that could be used as deadly weapons and brandish them in front of world leaders, or for that matter throw blood, pies, eggs, or rocks at world leaders, well, then it’s a day with a chill wind blowing, back alley abortions, PATRIOT Act, Ashcroft etc.

    The point being, from what I’ve seen of G-8 and Anti-WTO protestors in general, they are a pretty filthy, poorly behaved, destructive bunch of anti-capitalist goons. Laying down in rush hour traffic in major cities, having seminars on how to conduct organized mob violence, and “monkey wrenching” by pouring slippery stuff on the streets (presumably so cops on horses can’t slow down a riot in progress) is just lowlife criminal behavior. While there is a legitimate critique to be made about corporatism and global corporations, this crowd isn’t the one making it.

  20. Why not just arrest the ones who actually commit crimes, rather than outlaw free speech? Right now the would-be G-8 protestors are getting a lot of sympathy they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

    Those of you who argue that this is a good thing because of the crimes some protestors commit. . .shall I assume that you also support the War on Drugs? After all, one of the government’s main excuses for it is that a lot of people who use drugs then go on to commit crimes; rather than deal with the actual criminals, it is much easier to pre-emptively outlaw everybody.

  21. Aw, this isn’t any worse than the restrictions on protests recently adopted in Russia and Sri Lanka. What are you whining about?

  22. People who wish to protest this event shouldn’t have their rights truncated by the government using the excuse of the actions of protesters at previous events. This is tyranny. We are losing our freedom! BTW, thankfully the practice of “free speech zones” is being challenged in the courts.

  23. Jennifer has an excellent point. It does nothing productive whatsoever to pre-emptively make martyrs of these protesters, aside from which, whatever you think of their opinions, there are definite constitutional questions which shouldn’t be dispensed with by trotting out questionable clich?s about destructive riff-raff. The real issue is that it is a lot harder for police to actually do their jobs and arrest people who are committing crimes against property than to seal off the part they’re worried about, and issue a lot of absurd and offensive bans ahead of time. The Qu?bec city fiasco, where niceties like the U.S. Constitution were cleary moot, was the prototype of this method: fortify off a perimeter where the worthies are gathered, and pass a lot of bullshit rules such as “no bandanas” (they interfere with proper gassing) for the rest. I should note that, although there was little property damage at Qu?bec city, it wasn’t due to anything the cops did. There was basically zero police presence outside the summit centre. As far as the cops were concerned, the Black Block could have burned Ste-Foy to the ground if it had wanted to, just as long as George Bush and Jean Chr?tien couldn’t hear them shouting their slogans.

  24. Jennifer-

    Excellent point on drugs. Hmm, how about you have to put down a deposit before you use drugs? That way, if you violate another person’s rights or property while high the damage is covered.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending ANY act of vandalism or violence. I’m just suggesting that maybe we should arrest those who actually do it. And that those who actually do it shouldn’t just be released once things cool down, they should be prosecuted and ordered to pay restitution to those whose property they damage.

    But those who don’t do any vandalism should of course be free to protest.

    Go ahead, call me a liberal Democrat for defending the free speech rights of people that you don’t like.

  25. jennifer,

    The city did NOT ‘outlaw’ free speech.

    Jean Bart,

    You are using the slippery slope argument when you say these laws may then be used against the really peaceful protests. All I saw in the city ordinance was monetary provisions to cover the cost of cleanup (and damages). Peaceful protests should not have a problem with that.

    Also this argument reminds me of Rick Santorum (the ‘conservative’ Senator) who used such argument against gay marriage, claiming that these laws will then be extended to permit insest, beastiality, blah, blah … I am sure most of the folks here would have none of that.

  26. I just rented a picnic area at a public park.

    I paid for the rental AND I put down a damage deposit.

    I do not feel that my “free speech” rights have been violated.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.