Barbara O'Brien

Barbara O'Brien
New York, USA
October 01
Barbara O'Brien is the author of Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World, available at Amazon. She is the resident expert on Buddhism at and also blogs at The Mahablog.

Barbara O'Brien's Links

AUGUST 8, 2009 10:58AM

What Happened to Free Speech Zones?

Rate: 6 Flag

This is from the December 15, 2003 issue of the American Conservative, by James Bovard:

When Bush travels around the United States, the Secret Service visits the location ahead of time and orders local police to set up “free speech zones” or “protest zones” where people opposed to Bush policies (and sometimes sign-carrying supporters) are quarantined. These zones routinely succeed in keeping protesters out of presidential sight and outside the view of media covering the event.

When Bush came to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.” The local police, at the Secret Service’s behest, set up a “designated free-speech zone” on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush’s speech. The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, though folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president’s path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign. Neel later commented, “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”

Bovard points out that if someone had wanted to harm the President he could have cleverly disguised his intentions by holding a pro-Bush sign.

I urge you to read the entire article from this conservative journal, taking note of the parts about FBI surveillance of peace groups — remember how the feds were watching the Quakers? — and the part about how citizens were being urged to turn in “suspicious” people to the FBI. And this part:

The Bush administration’s anti-protester bias proved embarrassing for two American allies with long traditions of raucous free speech, resulting in some of the most repressive restrictions in memory in free countries. When Bush visited Australia in October, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mark Riley observed, “The basic right of freedom of speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra visits this week by the US President, George Bush, and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they like just as long as they can’t be heard.” Demonstrators were shunted to an area away from the Federal Parliament building and prohibited from using any public address system in the area.For Bush’s recent visit to London, the White House demanded that British police ban all protest marches, close down the center of the city, and impose a “virtual three day shutdown of central London in a bid to foil disruption of the visit by anti-war protesters,” according to Britain’s Evening Standard. But instead of a “free speech zone”—as such areas are labeled in the U.S.—the Bush administration demanded an “exclusion zone” to protect Bush from protesters’ messages.

Note that The American Conservative was launched by Patrick Buchanan (those of us who remember Buchanan's role in the Nixon Administration will find that ironic) and is currently running articles calling for “free market” solutions to health care. But credit where credit is due.

The point of the “free speech zones” was not security, obviously. The point was to suppress speech for political purposes. Just as it was the point of screening people at Bush rallies to be sure no one but loyal, registered Republicans were allowed inside. For eight years liberals were told that’s just how things were, and suck it up. Terrorists hate us for our freedoms, you know.

But now, confront some clearly agitated righties with the realities of physics, seating capacities and fire code laws, and President Obama is being compared to Hitler.

I remember during the 2004 Republican convention, the NYPD turned several blocks around Madison Square Garden into not only “no free speech” zones; they were also “no loitering,” “no photographing” and "get your butt out of here" zones. If it weren’t for Macy’s they might have roped off the entire area, but at least one could still shop at the Columbus Circle Macy’s.

That said, one afternoon during the convention I left Macy’s and boldly walked down the street opposite Madison Square Garden — the President would not have been there at the time — just out of curiosity. I carried no signs and wore no buttons or other indicators of political preference. I was nowhere close to an entrance to Madison Square Garden and made no attempt to enter. I was just a 50-something woman walking down the street with a Macy’s shopping bag. There were no protesters, and the only people I saw going into and out of the Garden looked like young staffers. No VIPS. I pulled a camera out of my purse to take a picture of Madison Square Garden showing the “Republican convention” sign — from across the street — and the cops told me to put the camera away and go somewhere else. No pictures.

So we liberals complained about this at the time, and most of the Right told us to suck it up.

My experience with leftie demonstrations goes back to the Vietnam era. Although I can’t say I was active in the antiwar movement then, I was sympathetic, and attended a few demonstrations, none memorable. More recently I took part in some big antiwar demonstrations in New York and Washington. I’ve never personally seen lefties get violent. I realize violence does happen, but it's very far from common.

No, what's more common for lefties is self-indulgent and vulgar. In my experience a lot of leftie demonstrators are more interested in drawing attention to themselves than in doing anything effective for the cause. And I never again in my life want to be subjected to some young man hogging a megaphone and screaming “no blood for oil” incessantly for an hour and a half.  I mean that sincerely.

But I’ve also been in big leftie demonstrations that were confronted by hostile counter-demonstrators, and it was rare to see anyone get into a shouting match. Mostly the counter-demonstrators were just ignored, although in one march in Washington I remember some of us sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” for them. The righties didn’t join in. They just looked grumpy.

So, yes, demonstrations tend to be messy and undisciplined, and there are always a few hotheads who make everybody else look bad, and I appreciate sometimes there are crowd control and security issues that may override someone’s need to vent.

But it would be really nice if we could all recognize that we have a common interest in preserving a right to free speech, and we also have a common interest in public order and civility.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
If I was a rep dealing with these people first I would have a booming microphone; not a friday night karoke one. Then I would tell the crowd feel free to ask any questions you like. You could scream your question, throw a tantrum, sing it, do interpretive dance; and have two minutes to do so. Then, you must listen. If you continue to interrupt me, you will get one warning and then be escorted out. If anybody else shouts during that time they will also get one warning and escorted out. I would also give you one follow-up if you demonstrate good behavior;) I am a HUGE defender of free speech. But, it's not free when you shut people down. I say this as an independent. I believe both parties should go by this plan and the chaos will end. My sense of republican representatives is they love this. Yet, they lose voters every day.

Let me give you an example in another context. I am a HUGE animal lover. If I ever strike it rich I want to open a dog refuge so no dog is ever put to sleep in NY. I write reps all the time about my
"animal" bill of rights. When I discuss it with most people, and they see my list, they agree with almost everything on it. Even people who are lukewarm about animals, say, I could agree with that.

Yet, though I like the work groups such as PETA does; exposing cruelty etc. They do a horrible job at getting a message across. People on the fence about certain animal issues do not want to see pies in people's faces, paint thrown on people etc. It turns people away and then animal lovers are grouped all together which really hurts any cause.

So, how does this relate to healthcare mob scenes at town meetings?
These screamers etc. are turning people, with open minds, away from their cause/message. And my empathy falls with people who I disagree with but can debate in a honest and deep way. Seeing these people act so bizzare has so many shut down from hearing any good points they may have. Passion is awesome, it is my favorite quality in others; yet it must be channeled so that others can understand what you believe in. If not, you are just static and everybody will simply; change the station.
maybe things have changed since i lived in the neighborhood, but these health care rallies aren't really town hall meetings. in a town hall meeting, the citizens discuss matters of interest to the township, and then vote to settle the matter.

but in the federal government, this is all make-believe because there is no voting. so it really doesn't matter who says what, and who gets yelled down. in the end the 'real' citizens, the anointed senators and reps, will decide, in private discussion, probably following a plan crafted for them by lobbyists.

pretend to be citizens of a democracy, if pretense satisfies you, but don't believe it- that is insanity.
maybe things have changed since i lived in the neighborhood, but these health care rallies aren't really town hall meetings. in a town hall meeting, the citizens discuss matters of interest to the township, and then vote to settle the matter.

You are confusing town hall meetings with PTA meetings. See Wikipedia definition of "town hall meeting." Usually there's no voting. It's just a forum for elected officials and constituents to discuss things.

but in the federal government, this is all make-believe because there is no voting.

And there never has been, with this sort of meeting. I don't understand why you think there would be voting. Yeah, most of the time they're just public relations events, but that's OK. People show up with questions or complaints about this or that, and it's talked over, and maybe the politician acts on it and maybe he doesn't. It's all informal and unofficial, but that's how it has always been.

We have a representative republic, which means the only official votes are the ones in formal election. A group of citizens who happen to show up at a meeting have no constitutional authority to make decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens. That would be "direct" democracy, which the guys who wrote the Constitution were very clear (see Federalist Papers) they did not want.
"But it would be really nice if we could all recognize that we have a common interest in preserving a right to free speech, and we also have a common interest in public order and civility."

Yes, it would be nice.
all this is the beginning of the end of the USA. I am watching all this on TV from overseas, it is sad. And it's going to end, sadly, in memories of King and Kennedy and the abortion doctor, and you know what I mean. These nuts are stoking the fire of death in America again, and when it happens, everyone is going to say: see, I told you so, this is what all that led to. It seems almost inexorable, and I cry for thee, America, I cry for thee, on thine death bed...... oi!
all this has NOTHING to do with health care. this is all PALIN PLAIN AND SIMPLE. It is something very sad and sick and sinister in the USA that is undoing the very fabric of life there. I have been watching this implode from overseas for 20 years now, and since Obama got elected, it has been getting worse. These nutters want blood, blood. O sad sad sad days in America......
As a Canadian, we're guilty of being too complacent with our governments, muttering to ourselves about not being happy with new policies, etc. We look with some degree of envy to our American friends who are more outspoken about their governments, but who are also much more partisan. When Barack Obama was campaigning for president against John McCain excitement for Obama grew to fever pitch among a large portion of Canada's population. In fact, a number of young Canadians volunteered on Obama's campaign. The Great One - the consummate unifier - would fix things in America.

What the heck happened? North of the border we're watching in disbelief as Americans rage against one another over Obama's healthcare bill. The amount of disinformation is incredible, including the most bizarre claims by opponents to the bill.

Lively debate with the cut and thrust of politics is expected in a healthy democracy. But what is occurring in America now is sick, very sick. Why has Barack Obama become such a lightening rod for so many special interest groups? To say that it's because he's the country's first Black president is a little too simplistic. In last week's The Economist, one astute observation was that Obama has "...subcontracted the big decisions to the Democratic leadership in Congress." As much as Obama wants to be participative in approach to policy development, Americans have always looked to their presidents for strength and leadership.

I, along with many Canadians, can only hope that somehow America can resolve its many issues without descending further into hatred and violence.
I have been to the 2004 RNC in NYC, a women's reproductive rights rally, and anti-War/ pro-troops rallies. NONE of these were violent. Anyone who thinks that these town hall protests--which drown out discourse at a planned meeting--are the same as organizations with permits marching peacefully in the street is sadly mistaken and probably knowingly distorting the truth.