AMERICANS' FREE speech is being caught in a bipartisan crossfire.
At the Democratic National Convention, organizers sought to confine protesters in a holding pen that would have disgraced perhaps any previous political convention in U.S. history. Unfortunately, the Democrats are building on one of President Bush's darkest precedents.
In Boston, police and convention organizers aimed to restrict protesters to a large patch of asphalt in a dank and dark area below an elevated subway line, nearby highways overhead. Internet blogger Gan Golan described the area: "It's like a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie -- a futuristic, industrial detention area from a Mad Max film. You are surrounded on all sides by concrete blocks and steel fencing, with razor wire lining the perimeter. Then, there is a giant black net over the entire space."
The ambience was accentuated by the police helicopters patrolling overhead, by the omnipresent National Guardsmen in their camo outfits and by the state police occasionally prancing around in their black armor suits. The Fourth Amendment was effectively suspended throughout Boston, and government officials claimed the right to search any subway rider's bag or briefcase without a warrant.
After the plan to confine protesters was revealed, several organizations raced to federal court to try to block the suppression of free speech. U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock in Boston declared that to label the protest area "an internment camp" is "an understatement." But he upheld the protest zone, largely because of the claimed lack of an alternative venue. One workman at the site characterized the area to a New York Times reporter: "Does it look like a concentration camp? I'm Jewish. It looks like a concentration camp."
Convention organizers justified covering the area with netting because of the danger that protesters might throw something at convention delegates. The possibility that one demonstrator might throw one apple at one delegate justified preemptive caging of all demonstrators. Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not use the same stringent standard when bombing foreign countries.
Boston officials spoke as if they did demonstrators a favor by penning them in. Mary Jo Harris, a lawyer for the Boston Police Department, said, "Nobody is being required to use the demonstration zone. The demonstration zone is provided merely for those people who wish to be able to express themselves directly to the delegates."
But the location of the zone is removed from the main action, next to a parking lot for buses. Ms. Harris observed, "It's a pity that we're hosting a Democratic National Convention where, because of the actions of a minority of people, we have to plan for acts of violence."
The government has pre-emptively decided that all protesters are collectively guilty and thus deserve preventative incarceration.
The Boston "free speech zone" illustrated how Democrats adopted one of Mr. Bush's most repressive trademarks. Since 2001, the Bush administration has used such zones to pre-emptively silence protesters across the land. In each case, Mr. Bush's visits to an area have been preceded by Secret Service inspections that mandated "free speech zones" -- and the arrest of anyone outside the zone who was holding a sign disapproving of Mr. Bush's policies.
The Bush administration prosecuted Brett Bursey, a South Carolinian who held up a "No War for Oil" sign a few hundred yards from an airport hangar where Mr. Bush was speaking to supporters and donors last year. The Justice Department charged Mr. Bursey with violating a rarely enforced federal law regarding "entering a restricted area around the president of the United States."
The Justice Department asserted in a formal brief that no court should have the power to "second-guess the Secret Service and law enforcement on security decisions" -- thus potentially entitling the feds to shut down all future protests in the president's vicinity. Mr. Bursey was convicted and fined $500 in January.
To designate a free speech zone is to delegitimize free speech everywhere outside the pen. The term "free speech zone" has quickly gone from being an obscenity and near-sneer to becoming formal government policy. This is a sea change in the American political vocabulary -- and proof of the pervasive deference to government and politicians in the post-9/11 era.
The Democratic convention accelerates the trend toward declining freedom of speech. Perhaps in 2008 demonstrators at political conventions will be confined to subway tunnels. Or perhaps those "free speech zones" will be in cavernous rooms with complete video and audio surveillance, with every 10th person being an undercover government informant.
Free speech zones are a pre-emptive strike against American freedom. It is absurd to presume that no one has the right to get close enough to holler at a politician. If Americans acquiesce to free speech zones, they are unfit for self-government.
James Bovard is the author of The Bush Betrayal and seven other books. He lives in Rockville.