November 24, 2006

Freedom of Speech? Hardly.

They’re small, confined areas surrounded by cage wire, usually designed to look like detention centers. They’re used on dissidents against the current presidential administration as well as the protestors of the government at large. People are often crowded inside of them, shackled or handcuffed to each other, and left there for hours and sometimes even days without a real reason for arrest. They have been used as political tools to suppress popular protest against the leaders of the economic and political world internationally. Democrats can usually be found within them. This description isn’t of the jail cells at Guantanamo Bay, but rather so called “free speech zones” put up across the country for protestors across the nation at major international summits and meetings of world leaders.

These zones, more accurately described as cages, are an affront to the American way of life. Their purpose isn’t crowd control, as so often cited by police departments around the world. While many supporters of the meetings and summits are allowed to stay next to or very close to the location of the meeting or convention of world leaders, freedom of speech cages are oftentimes kept up to half of a mile away from the intended locations of the conventions, parades, and summits. Their most prominent use these days is political: freedom of speech zones are often placed at locations in which President Bush intends to appear, in order to allow local authorities and the Secret Service to take out individuals with anti-Bush apparel or posters to locations far away from the press and the President. In other words, these cages are used as nothing more than places to put away people who disagree with the President so that the media manages to avoid showing actual opposition to Bush and instead ends up portraying the President as if he actually had popular support from the people.

On what grounds are these protest zones even legal? The justifications are very shaky at best. Many times police will simply arrest people who refuse to go such zones with charges of trespassing, despite the fact that in these cases those arrested will oftentimes be surrounded by supporters of the President. At one incident in Pittsburgh, at which the Presidential motorcade made a stop in 2002, a 65 year old- retiree was singled out from a crowd of hundreds and ordered to go to a baseball field one third of a mile out of the way, simply because his sign criticized the Bush Administration’s policy towards the poor. It was, of course, much easier to send that retired worker away than to actually face the criticism.

The only federal law used to justify these cases is one that is so rarely used that it is hardly known to anyone. This law allows the Secret Service to arrest people who willfully enter areas cordoned off for the President. Regardless of what statutes or laws used to justify the zones, several trials at many levels of federal courts on the subject have ruled that restricting people at major appearances of the President simply by the content of their protest is illegal, and yet it’s still done anyway. Freedom of speech zones are in direct violation of judicial authority in this nation. Allowing them to continue will only help to undermine the US court system’s authority.

But even more so, these zones fundamentally undermine the United States Constitution. Not only does the First Amendment to the Constitution not come with a qualifier that says that “this law only applies to cages set up far away from public notice,” but it specifically prohibits Congress and by extension the federal government from violating the freedom of speech. No federal law can therefore be used to justify sending people out of the way to exercise their rights inside of cages and far away from the media. But even worse is the implication that this has for freedom of speech in general. If freedom of speech is only limited, as implied by the name, to those specific areas at all times, does it mean that we live in a country where we can’t exercise our inalienable constitutional rights unless we’re confined to prison-like conditions? What good are these rights if the only place we can exercise them is in cages? What kind of message does it send to the world when America proclaims that the only place in which you can truly be free is inside of a chain linked cell?

The only conceivable reason that these zones could possibly be used under any circumstance is extreme crowd control. But this is clearly not the case, as every event in which the Presidential motorcade or a summit of world leaders in the United States occurs requires these zones. They are nothing more than political tools for those in power to both ignore and silence their critics from the American people. At the very best they highlight the incompetence of police departments in being able to control protestors. At the worst they exist as physical affronts to the United States Constitution and to Americans as a whole. The freedom of speech zone is a concept that must be eliminated immediately, because every time one is used, it sends out a message to the rest of the world: America is no longer the land of the free, no longer the land of opportunity or self-expression. Instead, America becomes a land of irony where the only true way to be free is to be imprisoned in cages.

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