The paradox of restricting free speech at political conventions
By Jenna Scatena
Tension had been building throughout the country for months. Tumultuous events — vast protests, cultural upheaval, assassinations — during the first eight months of 1968 turned the entire nation into a spectacle of turmoil of historic proportions. Watching to see what would happen next, America turned to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during August of 1968 for the crescendo.
Thousand protesters marched down Michigan Avenue, undeterred by government threats, with the intent of getting to the convention site. In preparation for what everyone knew would be a historic event, the government assembled 11,900 Chicago police, 7,500 army troops, 7,500 National Guardsmen and 1,000 Secret Service agents. Cops decorated the city with police lines in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the masses from reaching the convention site.
“The convention is a target for mass protests by rebels and dissenters of every stripe,” but reminded people, “the American tradition is the right to resist when order and system are deemed oppressive.”
The protesters, determined to take a stance, and the police, determined to stop them, collided, turning protests into riots. Protesters, reporters, bystanders and doctors offering medical assistance were beaten, tear-gassed and arrested in groups. The protesters’ long-time ally and tool, the media, taped footage of undeniable abuses on the part of the Chicago police and exposed their wrongdoings to the world.
Footage of the madness was ubiquitous across the country. At that point, any Americans who still believed in the assumption that all citizens were free were forced to wake up. They could neither ignore nor deny the raw images of police beating protesters in the streets of Chicago. Getting the public to recognize this was the first step toward change.
When the convention was over, 100 people were injured and 589 others were arrested. A CNN flashback report on the convention says, “. . . police [saw] the press as the enemy” that day. From the police’s perspective, the media, not the protesters, got the rest of the country involved — they were the megaphone that attracted the attention. The Chicago Police and the U.S. government received severe criticism for their aggression against civilians and, like any entity, they took action to protect themselves.
America is now faced with the dual battle of the ongoing fight for change and the simultaneous battle to uphold First Amendment rights. America is still fighting for things parallel to those fought for in the ’60s — equality, peace, women’s rights — and the public is still struggling to be heard.
Tom Hayden, one of the “Chicago 8” arrested at the convention and charged with inciting a riot, later became a California state senator. In a recent interview with Hayden, he says, “Demonstrations at conventions [now] are met with ‘war on terror’ barriers, overwhelming police response and [the] generation of fear among the public. . . quite different from ’68.”
U.S. government efforts to silence the public and the media have increased to the point that it is a stretch to even call America a democracy. Since ’68, the government’s favorite tactics have come to include requiring protest permits and subsequently refusing to grant them, enforcing “free speech areas” and restricting the media’s ability to cover events. Although protest permits and “free speech areas” existed back in ’68, they were not abused like they are today.
Alicia Swords, professor of sociology at Ithaca College, says the effort to minimize protests is “the government responding to pressure to control its people.” The radical protests of ’68 may have resulted in increased government regulations to prevent similar disasters from happening now. Since ’68, Americans have generally viewed protesters as unpatriotic, disagreeing with the U.S. government and, by extension, disagreeing with America; rebels who are up to no good; aimless hippies and progressives looking for an excuse instead of a reason to go against the status quo. Consequently, our rights are being taken away and the government is silencing its people and the media.
At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in New York City, “free speech areas” (commonly known as “free speech cages” or “protest pens”) were constructed so that protesters would have designated areas to voice their opinion. The purpose of these areas was for national “security reasons,” which is why they were usually miles away from the main site.
Needless to say, the “protest pens” were not well received and accrued massive amounts of criticism from people and the press for infringing on the rights of the protesters. So you’re allowed to protest, but only in designated areas; your rights aren’t being taken away, only displaced. But voicing one’s opinion is only useful when someone is listening — and protesting miles away from the site you are contesting ensures that no one who cares is listening.
Professor Swords comments, “If a regime can’t listen and respond to its people, it is an absence of any ethics and democracy in our current system.” Issuing protest permits reduces the purpose of protesting to a useless cathartic release rather than a tool for change.
In addition, it’s now common practice for cities to require protest permits. However, a lot of times cities flat-out deny protest permits or limit protesting to certain locations. The permit system has also gained extensive criticism for being used solely as a pretext for arresting people who violate them by choosing to protest regardless of whether permits are granted or not. The protest permit system is a deceptive and oppressive paradox for regulating free speech. According to Don Mitchell, professor and Chair of the Geography Department at Syracuse University, in an article titled “Permitting Protest/Silencing Dissent,” in 1931 the Supreme Court developed a doctrine that Mitchell paraphrases as, “the governments have to prove the validity of prior restraint in each instance; its validity can never be assumed. . . And permit systems, by definition, assume the validity of prior restraint.” This, Mitchell continues, “undermines critical means for dissent in America and thus undermines democracy.”
At this year’s Republican National Convention, which took place Sept. 1-4 in St. Paul, Minn., twenty thousand protesters attended — twice as many as the ’68 Democratic National Convention. Over 800 people were arrested because of their participation in the protests, including health-care workers, lawyers and almost 30 journalists — despite the reportedly peaceful nature of the protest.
CEO of freespeech.org and former outreach director of Democracy Now! Denis Moynihan was at the scene with a small crew of other Democracy Now! journalists and producers to cover the convention. The group had rented offices in downtown St. Paul from the local public access television center. In a recent interview, Moynihan says that before the convention even began, they “had been dealing with house raids, arbitrary arrests, and unidentifiable, unresponsive riot police for a few days.” Five preemptive raids had been launched, resulting in six arrests and hundreds of people being detained preceding the convention, courtesy of the local sheriff department and the FBI.
Mitchell emphasizes that preemptive raids and unjustifiable denials of protest permits is a form of prior restrain — it is government censorship.
Though there was not the same amount of skull-cracking violence at the Republican Convention this Sept. as there was at the Democratic Convention in 1968, there is still something terribly wrong with this picture:
Hummers wrapped with barbed wire patrolled the streets of St. Paul; armies of police marched alongside with clubs, AR-15 machine guns, pistols and tazers in hand and riot gear covering their faces — looking like thousands of replicas of each other. Orwell warned us of militant hegemonic sights such as this.
It was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany or the many neo-fascist states that flourished in South America,” Moynihan reported.
On Sept. 1, Moynihan reportedly saw “a hundred or so riot police violently forcing people. . . away from the Xcel Energy Center,” where the convention took place.
Moynihan then received a phone call that Nicole Salazar and Sharif Kouddous, producers for Democracy Now! who were documenting the unnecessary violence on part of the police force, were arrested. Moynihan then raced to 9th and Jackson to find his colleagues seated in handcuffs in a parking lot along with a group of others.
In a transcript of a conversation between award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!’s host, and St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington about the events of the convention, Goodman says, “Nicole Salazar. . . was taping the whole thing. The police moved in at her. . . As she shouted ‘Press! Press!’…they pushed her to the ground. They put their boot in her back. . . They bloodied her face.”
Moynihan asked police who the commanding officer was and “got no response — it was as if these heavily armed men could just. . . round up perfectly law abiding citizens and journalists, violently arrest and haul them off, without announcing who they were or under whose command or jurisdiction they operated. It was a chilling scene.”
Goodman also raced to the scene from the Xcel center where she had been conducting interviews. When she asked who was in charge, a policeman ripped the credentials from her neck and she was immediately arrested without an explanation, joining a slew of journalists. Moynihan concluded the interview by saying that what he witnessed that day was police “violating the civil rights. . . and trampling on the constitution.”
The uncanny treatment of the American people and the press at this year’s convention reflects that the government views them as rebels, as people other than their own. The mistake here is assuming that protesters and the press representing them are merely rebels. As history reminds us, underestimating rebels can be a fatal mistake — after all, rebellion is how America gained its independence.
The media serves as a megaphone and the government’s only hope to stop the uprising is to break the megaphone. Goodman reported on the Democracy Now! Web site that she and the two other producers who were arrested were fully credentialed by the convention. Commenting on the suspicious arrests, Goodman reflects, “The press are the eyes and the ears, and when they are closed, it’s dangerous. We need a free press to guarantee a free society.”
The era of censorship and silence we have slowly been slipping into over the last 40 years is no doubt a dangerous one. It tags revolutionaries as unpatriotic and the media that supports them as the enemy. These, Swords says, are “signs of fear in an administration that knows it has something to lose.” These are signs of a government that knows and fears the power of its people and for this reason tries to silence them, breaking the megaphone.
Jenna Scatena is a senior writing major. E-mail her at [email protected].