Caging Liberty: Americans Decry ‘Free Speech Zones’ at Republican and Democratic National Conventions

Now that the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are over, some are discussing the contrast of the conventions in regard to the ability to engage in free speech.

At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, demonstrators and others state that they were kept inside of a wire pen, which was classified as the approved “free speech zone.” Rows of police officers marched down the street in formation, making sure nothing got out of line, even separating opposing groups.

“Officials prepared for the worst, erecting fences around public buildings. Elsewhere, concrete barricades stopped cars and people alike. The jail on Orient Road was cleared out to streamline the booking of hundreds of expected protesters but the mayhem was limited,” reported Ann O’Neil.

“This RNC has been so over-militarized, even attendees were complaining about the level of security,” remarked Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor in Tampa. “They were ready with everything — unscalable fences, bomb-sniffing dogs, even long-range acoustic devices, which are nasty.”

“It is clear that these extreme measures were not intended to prevent a terrorist attack, they were for protesters,” she added. “There has been a shift toward a criminalization of dissent that is a real problem.”

Writer Dan Johnson noted that there were strict limitations on what objects people could carry during the event as well.

“The 2012 RNC, for example, banned sticks, strings and masks from the convention area, while the banned list for the 2008 RNC convention looks like a TSA do-not-bring list,” he explained.

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All in all, there were only two reported arrests at the event, as compared to a record 1,800 people in 2004 at the Republican National Convention in New York City.

At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, many were pleasantly surprised that they were not ushered away to a similar “free speech zone.” Instead, a large number of citizens and groups who came to engage in free speech activities were allowed to express themselves even adjacent to the Charlotte Convention Center, where the political event was taking place. In 2008, however, like the Republican National Convention, relocation to the “free speech zone” was mandatory.

Shane Brown, a Christian evangelist from Tampa who traveled to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, characterized the atmosphere in Tampa as “cage city,” but said he found it refreshing that when he arrived in Charlotte, he was “right on the people.” He explained that he could express his views practically anywhere he wished to stand, and experienced no interference by police.

A number of other evangelistic groups that traveled to the event also noted that they had much freedom and expressed gratitude over the gracious demeanor of the local police.

Yet, others state that they were kept away from the convention center. Reporter Patrick Hruby stated that many protesters were asked to express their views in a designated plot of land down the street from the Charlotte Convention Center, just off the highway. He outlined that the area, called the “speaker’s platform,” was meant to give those that wished to express their views 30-minutes of talk time.

“[A] number of us decided to jam the system, kind of making a mockery of the whole thing,” stated Occupy protester Michael Zytkow. “Not only are we boycotting participating within the free speech zone, but you won’t see people even coming to listen.”

Security was reportedly also beefed up in the area surrounding the event. According to WSOC-TV, approximately 55 TSA agents were sent to the Time Warner Cable arena, the Charlotte Convention Center and the Bank of America stadium to join the Secret Service in security efforts. Police were both on foot and mounted on bicycles, and bomb-sniffing dogs and behavioral detection experts were assigned to duty as well to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.

The “free speech zone” at the DNC in 2004.

By the end of the convention, there were a total of 25 arrests, as compared to 150 at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. A number of protesters were arrested for engaging in sit-ins that blocked traffic, and six others included a group that refused to move while sitting on a banner belonging to an energy company in protest of their environmental infractions.

As previously reported, free speech zones are becoming increasingly common in America, and are causing great concern among many. Even more concerning to some is the fact that the courts seem to be upholding free speech zones as constitutional.

Last month, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, comprised of Judges Dennis Jacobs, Pierre Leval and Debra Ann Livingston, two of whom are Republican judges appointed by George H.W. Bush, upheld a lower court ruling that declared such zones as being permissible. The case, entitled Marcavage et. al. v. City of New York et. al., centered around the arrest of two evangelists who were simply holding pro-life signs near Madison Square Garden in New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

“It may be, as Plaintiffs suggest, that a no-standing zone or no-large sign zone would have been a less restrictive alternative,” Jacobs wrote on behalf of the panel. “[However], the no-demonstration zone does not burden substantially more speech than necessary, even if alternatives are available.”

He stated that the zones were permissible because the city had justifiable terrorist concerns.

“The security planners of the NYPD understood that political conventions are potential terrorist targets and therefore prepared for the possibility that groups and individuals would engage in criminal conduct that could significantly endanger public safety,” Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote on behalf of the three judge panel. “The NYPD anticipated that there would be a volume of protest activity not seen in New York City in decades, including potentially hundreds of thousands of protesters throughout the city.”

However, many disagree with the court, and state that free speech zones are antithetical to the original intent of the Constitution.

“It’s frightening what just a couple of hundred years of politicking, self serving greed and expediency can do to a nation,” stated writer Mac Slavo. “Apparently, somewhere along the way, politicians and judges who hold their personal views in higher regard than those laws upon which this nation was founded, have taken it upon themselves to decide what’s best for the American people and that, perhaps, we have a little too much liberty.”

“Only those who agree with the message being delivered at a particular political or public event are now authorized to assemble in or around these areas. Anyone else is relegated to the cattle cages out of view of the public, the media and the officials at whom their protest or grievance is directed,” he added. “These zones are the very antithesis of free speech.”

Dan Johnson agrees.

“These zones undermine the very foundation of our Constitution, which was built on free speech,” he commented.

Some have also raised concern about Obama’s signage of the “Trespass Bill,” which makes it a crime to protest in an area that is protected by or restricted by the Secret Service. Under HR347, those who engage in free speech in certain areas could be charged with a misdemeanor for “engag[ing] in disorderly or disruptive conduct” or “imped[ing] or disrupt[ing] the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions.”

While no arrests were reported that were deemed to be a violation of the “Trespass Bill,” many are still concerned about the prevalence of “free speech zones” and the increasing police state that they believe our nation is becoming.

“The notion of being relegated to a fenced-off area in a government-designated ‘free-speech zone’ is troubling,” Zytkow stated. “So many people have fought for us to have and keep these freedoms.”

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