Friday, October 17, 2003

Republican Newspeak Zones

Dave Lindorff had a terrific piece in Salon the other day about the so-called "First Amendment zones" that are being deployed wherever President Bush and Vice President Cheney appear these days:
Keeping dissent invisible [Premium story]

What is remarkable about these "zones," however, is that -- in contravention of their name -- they are actually about suppressing citizens' free-speech rights. While most Americans believe the entire country is a "First Amendment zone", the Bush White House is herding its opponents into fenced-off areas well away from anywhere the president might see or hear them, which means there is no interaction between them and Bush for the media to record. Some of them are set up as far as two miles away.

The Newspeakish name given these zones is especially ironic, considering that one of the principal features of the zones is their content orientation. (For those interested, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled against hate-speech laws, for example, because of their "content orientation", which the courts have found violates the First Amendment.) In case after case, it is clear that pro-Bush supporters are given the traditional treatment of being allowed to voice their opinions anywhere they like, and as close to Bush as they choose. Anti-Bush demonstrators, however, are being herded into fenced-off areas.

As Lindorff reports:
At a hearing in county court, Det. John Ianachione, testifying under oath, said that the Secret Service had instructed local police to herd into the enclosed so-called free-speech area "people that were there making a statement pretty much against the president and his views." Explaining further, he added: "If they were exhibiting themselves as a protester, they were to go in that area."

Mind you, this doesn't necessarily appear to be the Secret Service's idea. This is something coming from the White House (and frankly has Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it). Lindorff writes:
Wolf also raises the possibility that White House operatives may be behind the moves to isolate and remove protesters from presidential events. He says that while he cannot recall specifically whether they were present with the Secret Service advance team before last year's presidential Labor Day visit, "I think they are sometimes part of" the planning process. The Secret Service declined to comment on this assertion, saying it would not discuss "security arrangements." The White House declined to comment on what role the White House staff plays in deciding how protesters at presidential events should be handled, referring all calls to the Secret Service.

Asked specifically whether White House officials have been behind requests to have protesters segregated and removed from the vicinity of presidential events, White House spokesman Allen Abney said, "No comment." But he added, "The White House staff and the Secret Service work together on a lot of things." While the Secret Service won't confirm that it is behind the pattern of tight constraints placed on protesters at public appearances by Bush and Cheney, the ACLU claims that mounting evidence suggests that this is exactly what is going on.

It is clear, in fact, that suppression of dissent in this fashion is purely a Republican motif. The Secret Service did not conduct itself in this fashion during Bill Clinton's tenure.

When did "First Amendment zones" first appear? The earliest form of them, unsurprisingly, was at George W. Bush's inauguration.

Though they went largely ignored by media, there were thousands of protesters in Washington that day, making it (fittingly) the largest Inaugural protest since 1973. Indeed, of the 300,000 estimated to be present, well over two-thirds of them were there to protest Bush's illegitimate ascension to the presidency.

My friend Maia Cowan was present, and she recalls that "the protest groups were split among different venues; they weren't allowed to have one big protest in one big place. (My guess was that the president-to-be didn't want anybody seeing how many protesters were there.) There were attempts to keep the protestors away from the parade route, including penning people up so that they couldn't even go back the way they came when they were blocked from going forward toward the parade."

Maia has collected a bunch of links at her Web site, Failure is Impossible, related to the First Amendment zones.

It appears that their first actual use was in Billings, Mont. , at a March 26, 2001, Bush appearance in which Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies "set aside an area for protesters about 100 feet from the box-office window in front of the building. The area was away from the path of most people entering Metra to hear the president."

The first time the name "First Amendment zone" appears to have been used was in Tampa, Florida, on June 4, 2001, when protesters were fenced in two miles away from Bush's appearance. Three people were arrested for violating police directives to remain behind the fence.

And since then, they have been deployed in nearly every public appearance which Bush has made, including during his fleet fundraising visit here in Seattle two months ago.

Because they are purely a Republican enterprise, the use of these zones should become an issue in the 2004 election, if Democrats are smart about it.

I'm presuming that Democrats will not ask the Secret Service to set up "First Amendment zones" for their appearances or in any way try to separate protesters from supporters. (If they do, they'll deserve to lose.) It is likewise nearly certain that Bush and Cheney will use them.

And every Democratic candidate should point that out at every opportunity they get.

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