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Genesee Valley Chapter — Stifling Free Speech

Stifling Free Speech

By Scott Forsyth A version of this article appeared in the ‘Daily Record’ on October 28, 2009. On Oct. 7, a demonstration occurred on Main Street in Rochester that illustrates the conflict between what some call the need for “public order” and the “right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” found in the First Amendment. What happened that day? About 100 persons, mostly students, assembled to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The protesters claimed they did so peaceably. “There certainly was no violence or property destruction on our part,” declared one of the leaders. The Rochester Police swooped down on the group with 25 cars and about 30 officers. Police broke up the protest and arrested 12 people. Two women were hurt severely enough to be sent to the hospital. As is often the case in incidents such as this, what happened and its legal context depend on one’s viewpoint. To the police the case was clear. Whereas the protesters may have started on a sidewalk, a highly-protected “traditional public forum” for political expression, they quickly moved into the street, an area more subject to government regulation. They did not have a permit to march in the street and were interfering with rush hour traffic, a danger to public safety. Of course, 25 police cars can interfere with traffic as well. Police assert the protesters blocked the passage of an emergency vehicle, a charge the protesters vigorously deny. Videos and eyewitness accounts collaborate both sides. Unfortunately, the police response seems to follow a nationwide pattern of protest containment — some would call it “suppression” — during a time of stress over several issues, such as terrorism and immigration. At recent political conventions, for example, police have infiltrated protest groups, intimidated leaders and detained arrested protesters for days. Host cities have established “protest zones” miles from the political proceedings. Such zones can be fencedin compounds further stifling protest. At the G-20 summit meeting in September, the City of Pittsburgh refused to issue permits for some street demonstrations, did not allow protesters into a previously identified “free speech” zone, preemptively arrested leaders, interdicted food and water destined for protesters and generally forced all protest activities far away from the site of the meeting. Hundreds were arrested, although most charges were dropped in the next few weeks. Protesters in Pittsburgh using cell phones or Twitter to warn of police actions were arrested on the grounds that they were abetting “illegal” activities. Similar arrests occurred in Iran following that country’s election, and were roundly condemned in the Western press. There has been no notable outcry by the press about cell phone or Twitter arrests in Pittsburgh. William Quigly of the Center for Constitutional Rights has commented on why protests throughout the United States have been controlled more aggressively in recent years: “First, there is the political advantage to keep fanning the fires of fear and insecurity (since 9/11) and suggesting to the public that violence is part of protests even though 99 percent of protests since 9/11 have been completely nonviolent.” “Second,” Quigly opines, “local law enforcement is in many cases no longer engaged in normal civil law enforcement but now is quasi-military. Protests become an opportunity for security forces to practice their mass response actions.” The Oct. 7 demonstration was not of the same scale as the protests at the political conventions and in Pittsburgh. But are we so fearful of 100 students protesting war that we need to respond with one policeman for every three protesters? In our zeal to zero out violence, have we created a police force unable to see the virtues of restraint? The mayor has promised an investigation. Thankfully, he does not appear to be seeking any political advantage from the incident. Let us keep it that way while we await the outcome of what should be a prompt and thorough investigation.

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