Blogs > Cliopatria > Terrorism and Speech

Sep 3, 2004 10:16 pm

Terrorism and Speech

I know it's a complicated subject, but you'd think someone with a background in publishing would have a better grasp of basic First Amendment issues:

"It is true that a handful of people have tried to destroy our city by going up and yelling at visitors here because they don't agree with their views," [New York Mayor] Mr. Bloomberg said."Think about what that says. This is America, New York, cradle of liberty, the city for free speech if there ever was one and some people think that we shouldn't allow people to express themselves. That's exactly what the terrorists did, if you think about it, on 9/11. Now this is not the same kind of terrorism but there's no question that these anarchists are afraid to let people speak out."
If yelling at people is terrorism, DHS is going to be very, very busy. If you could destroy New York City by yelling at visitors....

Seriously, though, in the words of Iowa Superior Court Judge Rosemary Sackett,"The First Amendment recognizes that a certain amount of expressive disorder not only is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, but must itself be protected if that freedom should survive."

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Jonathan Dresner - 9/8/2004

Mr. Mutschler,

I think we are in agreement. I'm just pointing out that there is a converse to the hypocrisy you cite, but I'm very clear on the fact that you do not, yourself, condone that hypocrisy. Apologies for the mistaken impression.

Charles V. Mutschler - 9/8/2004

Not to be nit-picky, but where did I argue in favor of defending the tactics of Operation Rescue? I THINK my statement is clear - there are folks on both sides of the political spectrum who are hypocrits, and that we are much better served by striving for consistency, difficult though that may be.

Thanks for reading and responding.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/7/2004

Again, I agree with most of what you said, except to point out that the converse of your contrast is also true: some of the people complaining most vocally about protesters and hecklers at and around the RNC are very protective of Operation Rescue, et al., tactics.

Consistency is difficult, when political positions are at stake. It's worth it, as you point out.

Charles V. Mutschler - 9/7/2004

Free Speech as a euphemism for disruptive behavior is not the same thing as constitutionally protected free speech. As others have noted, disruptive speech impinges on the rights of other persons to proceed with their rightful business. I find it problematic to have folks argue that hecklers at Republican political events are simply exercising their constitutional right to free speech,' but Operation Rescue people are 'depriving women of their right to reproductive health services' by picketing abortion clinics. In my view, both the hecklers and abortion clinic protesters are going beyond what is reasonable expression of free speech.

There is an interesting comparison of approaches to this, proving that good behavior by protestors is not a result of a repressive right wing municipal administration. Seattle's liberal city council couldn't decide how to deal wtih the hoodlums protesting the meeting of the World Trade Organization in their community. Result: Smashed windows, much property damage, arrests, and public outrage over a riot that gave the city a bad reputation. Nearby Portland, Oregon is, if anything, even more progressive in its politics. The mayor and police chief in Portland met with various groups that tend to engage in public protest and made a simple point: Public speaking is legal, riots are not. Any law breaking would be promtly and speedily responded to, and there would be jail time and municipal prosecution for all infractions and public disorder. If the city ran out of jail space, they had arranged for placing the overflow elsewhere. Result: A peaceful protest in Portland, and no disruption of the meeting that the protestors objected to. Both parties were able to exercise their right to free speech.

I think it is our responsibility to make it very clear, as did the municipal administration in Portland, that we will not countenance disruptive behavior by anyone - even those who we might otherwise sympathize with. The appearance of a double standard - even if it is only an appearance, and not a reality - is destructive of public discourse.

Charles V. Mutschler

E. Simon - 9/4/2004

To be fair - in thinking about the situation in NYC again, I realize that, as far as I know, footage of the protestors which I saw, didn't display them going into the abortion clinic-like tactics that had probably first come to mind when I was thinking about the 1st amendment issues involved. As for those arrested, I'll have to read into it further to see if this was or was not, presumptively, the case. So far, the interviews I've heard of detainees suggests that they don't understand or respect the zoning balance precedent established through over 30 years of coexistence between Roe v. Wade and Amendment I.

As far as I know, this was an unprecedented challenge for the city. Obviously it was all part of what Rove & Co. planned out as a pretty bold, (or if you prefer, cocky or insensitive), political statement. New Yorkers have a way, culturally, of incorporating yelling into their acceptable every day discourse, which was probably not the norm for the kind of people at the RNC. Nevertheless, they're entitled to every protection the city can afford them in allowing their convention to proceed undisrupted.

So hopefully you can understand where I'm coming from a little better with the "content, not proximity" challenge. There are reasons why administrators take into consideration zoning when offering permits for assemblies, demonstrations, and yes, counter-demonstrations. Two virulently opposed groups can both assemble in the same city, but there is no reason why city officials, if they fear violence, disruption or recriminations, should permit those events to occur side-by-side. The political climate over the past few years has shown us what the kind of people expected to protest have been capable of. For those who have respected the rights of others, I am grateful and respect what they have to say. Any attempts to impede access by verbal confrontation as an invitation to physical confrontation, I see differently, and for that, I am grateful for the barriers, the police who did their job, and yes, for the fact that people who are willing to express an alternate point of view yet respect their own limits in doing so.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/4/2004

I agree with most of your comments, and probably most of the specific cases you're refering to, but I suspect that we're reading the reportage on the protests differently. My reading of the coverage suggests to me that irresponsible behavior was a very small exception -- dozens of people, though hundreds were arrested -- to a very peaceful norm -- hundreds of thousands of people.

Bloomberg is being grossly irresponsible when he uses language like "tried to destroy our city" and "exactly what the terrorists did." He's being hypocritical when he talks about "the city for free speech if there ever was one and some people think that we shouldn't allow people to express themselves" because the city did indeed go to great lengths, mostly within the letter of the law, to limit speech of one side of the debate.

And there's a great deal of debate about what 'competitive speech' means which is occluded by your formulation "content, not proximity."

E. Simon - 9/4/2004

From the National Archives...

"Amendment I"

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to PEACEABLY assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Perhaps we interpret English differently. I don't expect peaceable assembly, or actions to facilitate it, to concede to violent or disruptive intrusions from those unassembled. I also don't take peaceable assembly to include the ability to hurl verbal barrage directly at persons unaffiliated with an (unofficially) assembled counter-demonstration, as they merely go about their own business. Obviously the demonstrators didn't want the Republicans there and would have disrupted the convention if they could. I don't understand what Rosemary Sackett's quote is supposed to refer to, or your purpose in posting it, but I hope you're not taking "expressive disorder" as a weak metaphor for disruptive, as opposed to peaceable assembly. There is a difference.

If they wanted to have their own meeting, amongst themselves and those who care to listen to their ranting, fine. People are free to a viewpoint. They are free to a venue in which to express it. They are free to an audience - assuming one who cares to listen is available. And they are free to express views that compete against those of others. But let's not forget - competitive speech refers to content, not proximity. And loudly drowning others out, or worse, verbally accosting them, is not protected speech.

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