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Holding Presidential Debate on Private Property Undermined Free Expression: NYCLU

Holding a major public event, like a presidential debate, on private property far removed from the public can raise free speech problems, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Nassau County Chapter reports after it dispatched legal observers to Hofstra University for the first debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Given the intense public interest in this election and in the debates themselves, the NYCLU is disappointed that the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t make more of an effort to accommodate protest activity within a reasonable distance from the site of the debate. Dissent is an integral part of every election campaign. The second presidential debate on Sunday night will also take place at a private university.

“Considering this was the most watched presidential debate in history, it is unfortunate that there was not a greater effort made to allow for peaceful protest within reasonable proximity to the debate,” said Susan Gottehrer, Director of the NYCLU’s Nassau County Chapter. “The Commission should ensure that events so significant to the public are situated in areas that also accommodate robust free expression.”

Even though the Nassau County Police Department behaved in a respectful manner toward protestors, the protest zone set up in conjunction with the Hofstra debate was too restricted, too inaccessible and too far from the actual debate to provide a meaningful outlet for dissent. The entire North Campus of Hofstra had been shut down and surrounded by a vehicular perimeter. Thousands of protestors had to navigate on foot a labyrinth of concrete and metal barricades that stretched for at least 1.5 miles from east to west to go stand on a narrow public sidewalk that was not within sight nor sound of the debate. Moreover, they had to go through checkpoints and submit to suspicion-less bag searches, in some instances standing in line for 20 minutes. Many people with physical disabilities would have been prevented from protesting. And while Hofstra also set up a designated spot for protestors on its private grounds, it was far removed from the actual debate location and very few people gathered there.

The Vice Presidential debate that took place on October 4 was likewise situated on the grounds of the private Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. This weekend’s second debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump is also set to take place on the grounds of a private university, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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