In the last four major 2016 election cycle events – the two nominating conventions and the two Presidential debates – one thing was noticeably absent from media coverage: protesters. The hosting cities of nationally televised events colluded with the Secret Service and local police to conceal any appearance of dissent. In a glaring violation of the First Amendment, protesters at nationally televised events are only legally allowed to express themselves within the confines of fenced enclosures located nearly a mile away from event sites. The government has named these areas “free speech zones.”
The zones are surrounded by barricaded chicken-wire fences that are remarkably similar to the fences that line the US-Mexico border. Scores of police herd protesters into the region with roadblocks, which prevents protesters access to the forum against which they intend to voice dissent. “Free speech zones” are designed to conceal protestors from the media and shield event attendees from hearing their message. Protesters are subject to arrest and trespass charges if they demonstrate outside of the allocated zone. If convicted, the maximum punishment under the law is a ten year prison sentence.
Any event that the Department of Homeland Security labels as a National Special Security Event (NSSE) permits authorities to restrict protesters to “free speech zones.” NSSE’s are not limited to political events. For instance, NCAA games and NFL games have previously been designated as NSSE.
The legality that permits the government to restrict open expression stems from a statute passed in 1971. The law, Section 1752 of the US Code, forbids people from entering restricted government areas or impeding official government business. The legislation was passed presumably to prevent large-scale protests from occurring at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions of 1972 after marches outside the previous Democratic National Convention disrupted the event.
The protests at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 1968 were remarkably successful in impacting government policy. Thousands of protesters descended upon the DNC site in Chicago, Illinois, where they demonstrated directly outside of the convention site. This resulted in a massive police presence and subsequent violent crackdown on protesters, which was well-documented by the media. Television broadcasts of the demonstrations amplified the protesters’ message to millions of Americans and live reporting on the police’s excessive use of force caused viewers to sympathize with protesters.
The success of the demonstrations at the DNC are evident in the ratification of the twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution and the changes made to the Democratic Party’s primary system. The twenty-sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. This was important because previously, eighteen-year-olds could be drafted by the military, but could not participate in elections. Additionally, the Democratic Party modified their primary system to prevent party leaders from hand-selecting the candidate of their choosing. At the 1968 DNC, Hubert Humphrey was chosen by party leaders as the Democratic party’s nominee for President, despite not running in a single primary. The public display of dissenting voices at the DNC in 1968 encouraged meaningful and longstanding changes in America. However, these changes were only possible because the protesters’ message could be heard.
The use of “free speech zones” was first employed extensively under the George W. Bush administration, perhaps as a response to quash dissenters of the 2000 election or the Iraq War. According to the testimony of a Pennsylvania police officer in the criminal trial of a protester who demonstrated outside of a free speech area along the route of the President’s motorcade, the Secret Service ordered police to confine anyone with views opposing the Bush administration into partitioned areas that would not be visible to the media or event attendees. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) subsequently sued the Secret Service for their suppression of protesters at Bush events.
Most convictions of protesters under the Bush administration were overturned because federal prosecutors could not prove demonstrators “willingly and knowingly” violated the law. However, the Obama administration amended this law to make it easier for courts to secure protesters’ convictions. The amended bill criminalizes people that knowingly express themselves outside of “free speech zones”.
The government’s refusal to provide protesters an open forum to express their opinions is a direct violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees individuals and groups to express themselves without obstruction or restraint by the government. As seen at the 1968 DNC, protests can have massive impacts to effect political change, but today, opposing voices are being stifled in “free speech zones.”
At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, protesters were cordoned off by a police perimeter that featured a nearly five-mile-long fence surrounded by hundreds of police officers. Police doused flag-burning protesters with pepper spray in Cleveland and struck dissenters who left the free-speech zone in Philadelphia with batons .
Similarly, the first Presidential Debate at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York used extensive police roadblocks that forced demonstrators on a three-mile walk to the restrictive “free speech zones.” More than 1,000 police officers in tactical gear kept the protesters confined behind the fences. Twenty-four people were arrested for demonstrating outside of the barricaded area.
Demonstrators who attended the second Presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9th were also met with the same level of impediment against open expression. An outlying section of the University was set aside for protesters. The encampment was called the “public expression zone” and featured the same silencing of government opposition as “free speech zones.”
The government is constricting open democracy and criminalizing dissent. Barriers shelter critics of the government. Desolate locations muffle dissenting voices. Excessive force and prison sentences restrict freedom of expression. Views that conflict with government policy and can influence substantial change in our country will be silenced wherever “free speech zones” stand.