We know that photographers have been having problems all over the country with police harassment, and that demonstrators’ free speech rights have also been under assault. But with the Democratic and Republican political conventions coming up, we have all too much reason to expect that free speech rights will be swallowed up in the vortex of those events, which have become constitutional black holes in recent years.
Chris Hansen, our senior First Amendment attorney, has been litigating First Amendment cases for many years, including landmark cases such as Reno v. ACLU, and a number involving the free speech rights of protesters. I asked him to give me an overview of the situation, and he said that we’ve been seeing three big problems that come up increasingly at all these kinds of events:
Consciously and intentionally violating the law and Constitution is apparently viewed as a legitimate tactic by the same police and officials who are supposed to be enforcing the law. Chris Hansen adds,
It’s an accelerating pattern, and a remarkably consistent pattern. In other words, there don’t seem to be significant city-by-city variations in police behavior; there seems to be a playbook for police departments that they’re all using.
Chris says that when attorneys for protesters try to seek legal protection in advance, the cities respond by using various tricks they have learned to get around legal oversight. For example, with respect to the free speech zones, he says:
We’ve tried. Part of the problem is the city often won’t tell you until the last minute where you’ll be allowed to demonstrate. So if you go into court six months before the event, the city says, “we haven’t made any decisions yet,” and the judge says “well, how can I decide this in the abstract?” But if you wait for the police to announce the location right before the event, the judge often says, “I don’t have time to second-guess the city, I’m just going to let it go.”
So the cities have learned that if they keep the location information secret up until the very last minute, for the most part judges aren’t going to second-guess their decision, so they end up sending you six miles away, under a bridge. That’s the classic example, in Boston, where they were literally under the highway.
It’s sad and ironic that the political conventions, which at some level are supposed to represent democracy and freedom, have become empty, stage-managed, institutionalized, Soviet-style show events, while simultaneously becoming the occasion to sell out real individuals’ actual, ground-level free speech rights as a “cost of doing business.”