Free speech zones (also known as First Amendment zones, free speech cages, and protest zones) are areas set aside in public places for political activists to exercise their right of free speech in the United States. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging… the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The existence of free speech zones is based on U.S. court decisions stipulating that the government may regulate the time, place, and mannerbut not contentof expression. A free speech zone is more restrictive than an exclusion zone.
The Supreme Court has developed a four-part analysis to evaluate the constitutionality of time, place and manner (TPM) restrictions. To pass muster under the First Amendment, TPM restrictions must be neutral with respect to content, narrowly drawn, serve a significant government interest, and leave open alternative channels of communication. Application of this four-part analysis varies with the circumstances of each case, and typically requires lower standards for the restriction of obscenity and fighting words.
Free speech zones have been used at a variety of political gatherings. The stated purpose of free speech zones is to protect the safety of those attending the political gathering, or for the safety of the protesters themselves. Critics, however, suggest that such zones are “Orwellian”, and that authorities use them in a heavy-handed manner to censor protesters by putting them literally out of sight of the mass media, hence the public, as well as visiting dignitaries. Though authorities generally deny specifically targeting protesters, on a number of occasions, these denials have been contradicted by subsequent court testimony. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed, with various degrees of success and failure, a number of lawsuits on the issue.
The most prominent examples were those created by the United States Secret Service for President George W. Bush and other members of his administration. Though free speech zones existed in limited forms prior to the Presidency of George W. Bush; it was during Bush’s presidency that their scope was greatly expanded.
Many colleges and universities earlier instituted free speech zone rules during the Vietnam-era protests of the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, a number of them have revised or removed these restrictions following student protests and lawsuits.
During the 1988 Democratic National Convention, the city of Atlanta, Georgia set up a “designated protest zone” so the convention would not be disrupted. A pro-choice demonstrator opposing an Operation Rescue group said Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young “put us in a free-speech cage.” “Protest zones” were used during the 1992 and 1996 United States presidential nominating conventions
Free speech zones have been used for non-political purposes. Through 1990s, the San Francisco International Airport played host to a steady stream of religious groups (Hare Krishnas in particular), preachers, and beggars. The city considered whether this public transportation hub was required to host free speech, and to what extent. As a compromise, two “free speech booths” were installed in the South Terminal, and groups wishing to speak but not having direct business at the airport were directed there. These booths still exist, although permits are required to access the booths.
WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 protest activity saw a number of changes to how law enforcement deals with protest activities. “The [National Lawyers] Guild, which has a 35-year history of monitoring First Amendment activity, has witnessed a notable change in police treatment of political protesters since the November 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. At subsequent gatherings in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and Portland a pattern of behavior that stifles First Amendment rights has emerged”. In a subsequent lawsuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that “It was lawful for the city of Seattle to deem part of downtown off-limits… But the court also said that police enforcing the rule may have gone too far by targeting only those opposed to the WTO, in violation of their First Amendment rights.”
Free speech zones were used in Boston at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The free speech zones organized by the authorities in Boston were boxed in by concrete walls, invisible to the FleetCenter where the convention was held and criticized harshly as a “protest pen” or “Boston’s Camp X-Ray”. “Some protesters for a short time Monday [July 26, 2004] converted the zone into a mock prison camp by donning hoods and marching in the cage with their hands behind their backs.” A coalition of groups protesting the Iraq War challenged the planned protest zones. U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock was sympathetic to their request: “One cannot conceive of what other design elements could be put into a space to create a more symbolic affront to the role of free expression.”. However, he ultimately rejected the petition to move the protest zones closer to the FleetCenter.
Free speech zones were also used in New York City at the 2004 Republican National Convention. According to Mike McGuire, a columnist for the online anti-war magazine Nonviolent Activist, “The policing of the protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention represent[ed] another interesting model of repression. The NYPD tracked every planned action and set up traps. As marches began, police would emerge from their hiding places building vestibules, parking garages, or vans and corral the dissenters with orange netting that read ‘POLICE LINE DO not CROSS,’ establishing areas they ironically called ‘ad-hoc free speech zones.’ One by one, protesters were arrested and detainedsome for nearly two days.” Both the Democratic and Republican National parties were jointly awarded a 2005 Jefferson Muzzle from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, “For their mutual failure to make the preservation of First Amendment freedoms a priority during the last Presidential election”.
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