“Free Speech” Zones in Providence
First of all, ya gotta love the name. Some spin meister someplace was on all sixteen cylinders when s/he thought of that term for curbing the speech of protesters by herding them away from the action.
“Free speech zones” have featured at the national conventions of both the Democrat and Republican parties, where the phrase and the practice attained national prominence. While we will probably never know, therefore, the partisan affiliation of the spin meister who originally coined the term, it should be noted that it was organizers of a democratic convention (2004 in Boston) who ratcheted the concept up to the next level of physically caging protesters. (The elephants have, so far, refrained from emulating.)
Fast forward to free speech channeling efforts here and now.
Foreseeing a large turnout of protesters, the city has marked certain designated areas for demonstrations and is asking protest groups to register prior to the start of the annual gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which opens here Friday.
Under no circumstance should any protester headed for the US Conference of Mayors in our capitol city register with anyone. Sure,
There will not be any penalty for protesters that fail to register
but the fact of the matter is that the request is being made by a person of authority. The concept of opting out may not be readily apparent to everyone. I wonder, therefore, if it is constitutional to even make such a request. Certainly, the concept of requiring a protester to first register is unconstitutional. For the ease of reference of civil liberty types, the registration form has been placed, bold as brass, on the City of Providence’s “First Amendment and Protest Information for the US Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting” webpage. “First Amendment and Protest Information” – it sounds like they hunted out that spin meister to name this page.
As for the “free speech” zones, renamed “public viewing” areas (aren’t zoos also public viewing areas?), if the city is relying on the precedent set by national political conventions of restricting protesters to such areas, it could be a dubious proposition. However deplorable the establishment of free speech zones at political conventions may be, such events take place on private property. The property owner or lessee is presumably free to dictate where a visitor may or may not go on the premises and even to refuse entry to certain visitors. Accordingly, it seems to this highly amateur armchair non-attorney that such restrictions could apply to the public right-of-way only for very narrow reasons.
Providence officials have repeatedly used the word “safety” as they have set up “public viewing areas” and issued the request for protesters to register; safety, then, must be one of the few bases for such restrictions. It is important, however, that officials not abuse that word or exaggerate concerns of danger. Under such circumstances, “safety measures” can quickly cross the line from prudent to smothering and, thereby, leave the arena of public safety for the world of silence-your-opponent politics.