Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Muzzle rules for GOP convention under fire

Protesters planning a presence at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, are hoping to do what their counterparts at the Democratic Convention have been unable to accomplish: carve out a little more breathing room for free speech than current "security" regulations currently allow.

It's an uphill battle. Judge Joan N. Ericksen, of the United States District Court, has already ruled against (PDF) a challenge to parade rules on the grounds that they "were content neutral, were narrowly tailored to serve significant government interests, and left open ample alternatives for communication of the Coalition’s message." The language is almost identical to that used by Judge Marcia S. Krieger to turn back a lawsuit against Denver's protest rules, demonstrating that the courts are invoking near-boilerplate when it comes to choking off exercises of free speech that might offend the tender sensibilities of officials of the two major political parties.

The latest two legal challenges are brought independently by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild. Among the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU is former FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley, who made waves with a 13-page memo pointing out how the feds dropped the ball on 9/11. The ACLU also represents Impeach for Peace, an organization whose cause is fairly self-evident.

Plaintiffs in the other suit include the Welfare Rights Committee, Twin Cities Peace Campaign and the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War.

The ACLU and the NLG both have a track record of pushing for greater scope for free speech in an era when "security" is often invoked to trump traditional protections for individual rights. Last year, the NLG published a report (PDF) charging that the federal government is deliberately marginalizing political protesters, even going so far as to paint them as terrorists and subject them to the same surveillance and infiltration as would-be bombers. That jibes all too well with what mainstream news organization have found. In 2006, U.S. News reported that it had "identified nearly a dozen cases in which city and county police, in the name of homeland security, have surveilled or harassed animal-rights and antiwar protesters, union activists, and even library patrons surfing the Web." The "intelligence" activity seems to be fueled by a copious flow of federal funds intended to encourage just such measures.

As with the Denver challenge, the litigants want to take their protests beyond a designated, fenced area where free speech will be allowed as if it were a museum exhibit. They also complain that "free" speech will be managed under rules known only to the police, and violated at the peril of the protesters. The latest challenges are a bit different, however, in that they're brought in state court under the Minnesota Constitution. State constitutions are sometimes interpreted to provide greater protection for individual rights than the federal document, so plaintiffs hold out hope for a better outcome than they've achieved at the federal level.

Unfortunately, the state court will be rendering its decision in the same environment as the federal courts -- one rife with deference to authority and nearly hysterical concerns about security.

Which is to say: Don't hold your breath waiting for the protest restrictions to be loosened at national political conventions.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home