Free Speech Zones

John Baez

June 23, 2004

Hypocrisy tries to hide itself, but it rarely succeeds for long. It reveals itself through doublespeak - phrases that visibly mean the opposite of what they pretend to.

When the Bush administration cut back on service in the national parks, did they call it a "cutback"? No: Randy Jones, the Park Service's deputy director, wrote a memo saying:

If you are personally pressed by the media in an interview, we all agree to use the terminology of "service level adjustments" due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking.
But this pales beside one of the enduring legacies of the Bush administraction: the "free speech zone" - also known as a "designated free speech area" or "designated protest zone".

The president of the ACLU writes:

Retired steelworker William Neel, 66, headed out to a Pittsburgh road where Bush's motorcade was to pass last year with a hand-lettered sign - "The Bushes must surely love the poor; they have made so many of us!". He wanted to protest the president's economic policies. Neel never got to display his sign. He spent the presidential visit in custody. As he arrived and milled among Bush supporters, cops told him the U.S. Secret Service, a unit of the Homeland Security Department that protects the president and other key officials, wanted him to move to a "free-speech area".

The "free-speech area" was behind a remote baseball diamond enclosed in a six-foot high chain-link fence.

When Neel refused to go he was handcuffed and taken to a firehouse serving as headquarters for the Secret Service during the president's visit. The ACLU got the "disorderly conduct" charge that was filed against him dismissed.

A favorite tactic of the Bush administration is to herd out of view of his motorcade, and into "designated protest zones," people protesting the president's many controversial policies and actions. Those who refuse to go into protest zones are then arrested. In contrast, avowed Bush supporters are allowed to remain alongside the presidential motorcade and within his earshot.

This tactic is being used nationwide to suppress dissent and undermine the essential First Amendment right to express disagreement in a public forum with the policies of governmental officials. The ACLU identified about 20 separate incidents where protesters were segregated or removed during presidential or vice-presidential events.

For more details, see the ACLU webpage on Dissent in Post-9/11 America.

Lest you think it's only liberals who care about restrictions on free speech, let me quote The American Conservative:

Similar suppressions have occurred during Bush visits to Florida. A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, "At a Bush rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators - two of whom were grandmothers - were arrested for holding up small handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone. And last year, seven protesters were arrested when Bush came to a rally at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused to be cordoned off into a protest zone hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome. One of the arrested protesters was a 62-year-old man holding up a sign, "War is good business. Invest your sons." The seven were charged with trespassing, obstructing without violence and disorderly conduct.

Police have repressed protesters during several Bush visits to the St. Louis area as well. When Bush visited on Jan. 22, 2003, 150 people carrying signs were shunted far away from the main action and effectively quarantined. Denise Lieberman of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri commented, "No one could see them from the street." In addition, the media were not allowed to talk to them police would not allow any media inside the protest area and wouldn't allow any of the protesters out of the protest zone to talk to the media." When Bush stopped by a Boeing plant to talk to workers, Christine Mains and her five-year-old daughter disobeyed orders to move to a small protest area far from the action. Police arrested Mains and took her and her crying daughter away in separate squad cars.

The Justice Department is now prosecuting Brett Bursey, who was arrested for holding a No War for Oil sign at a Bush visit to Columbia, S.C. Local police, acting under Secret Service orders, established a free speech zone half a mile from where Bush would speak. Bursey was standing amid hundreds of people carrying signs praising the president. Police told Bursey to remove himself to the free speech zone.

Bursey refused and was arrested. Bursey said that he asked the policeman if "it was the content of my sign, and he said, `Yes, sir, it's the content of your sign that's the problem.'" Bursey stated that he had already moved 200 yards from where Bush was supposed to speak. Bursey later complained, "The problem was, the restricted area kept moving. It was wherever I happened to be standing."

Bursey was charged with trespassing. Five months later, the charge was dropped because South Carolina law prohibits arresting people for trespassing on public property. But the Justice Department in the person of U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr. quickly jumped in, charging Bursey with violating a rarely enforced federal law regarding "entering a restricted area around the President of the United States". If convicted, Bursey faces a six-month trip up the river and a $5000 fine. Federal magistrate Bristow Marchant denied Bursey's request for a jury trial because his violation is categorized as a "petty offense". Some observers believe that the feds are seeking to set a precedent in a conservative state such as South Carolina that could then be used against protesters nationwide.

Bursey's trial took place on Nov. 12 and 13. His lawyers sought the Secret Service documents they believed would lay out the official policies on restricting critical speech at presidential visits. The Bush administration sought to block all access to the documents, but Marchant ruled that the lawyers could have limited access. Bursey sought to subpoena John Ashcroft and Karl Rove to testify. Bursey lawyer Lewis Pitts declared, "We intend to find out from Mr. Ashcroft why and how the decision to prosecute Mr. Bursey was reached." The magistrate refused, however, to enforce the subpoenas. Secret Service agent Holly Abel testified at the trial that Bursey was told to move to the free speech zone but refused to co-operate. Magistrate Marchant is expected to issue his decision in December.

The feds have offered some bizarre rationales for hog-tying protesters. Secret Service agent Brian Marr explained to National Public Radio, "These individuals may be so involved with trying to shout their support or non-support that inadvertently they may walk out into the motorcade route and be injured. And that is really the reason why we set these places up, so we can make sure that they have the right of free speech, but, two, we want to be sure that they are able to go home at the end of the evening and not be injured in any way." Except for having their constitutional rights shredded.

Marr's comments are a mockery of this country's rich heritage of vigorous protests. Somehow, all of a sudden, after George W. Bush became president people became so stupid that federal agents had to cage them to prevent them from walking out in front of speeding vehicles.

Brett Bursey was convicted in January 2004 and fined $500, even though the judge acknowledged he was not a threat to George W. Bush. He has appealed.

To help stop this sort of nonsense, I've joined the ACLU. They do some silly things, but they're one of the few organizations willing and able to fight back against this corrosion of our rights.

As far as I'm concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. - Bill Neel

© 2004 John Baez