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    A Times Editorial

    Zones hinder free speech

    The president's supporters and detractors have an equal right to stand at the same site, at the same time, and tell him what they think.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 9, 2002

    The name itself is a joke: "First Amendment Zones." The term describes those fenced-off areas designated for protesters at political events. It may seem benign enough, but in reality the zones are another way government controls speech. Protesters are kept so far away from their intended target that their presence becomes almost invisible.

    Earlier this month, seven people were arrested outside the USF Sun Dome during a political rally where President Bush was appearing on behalf of his brother Gov. Jeb Bush . The group was charged with trespass for refusing to move into a "First Amendment zone" that had been set up hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome. Their experience is similar to that of three protesters who were arrested last year at a public rally at Legends Field at which President Bush was promoting his tax cuts.

    A bedrock free speech principle is that the government cannot give freer rein to some messages than others. Yet, in and around these Bush rallies, supporters of the president were welcome anywhere. It was only those opposing administration policies who were banished to a spit of land out of earshot and eyeshot of the president.

    At the Bush rally on June 4, 2001, Mauricio Rosas, a local gay rights activist, and two fellow demonstrators, both grandmothers, were arrested for holding up small handwritten protest signs -- in a sea of pro-Bush signs. A federal civil rights lawsuit, filed recently by the three with the help of the Tampa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, asks a judge to acknowledge the wrong that was done and order redress.

    The arrests were caught on videotape and should be required viewing for anyone who thinks a lawsuit is an overreaction. Tampa police officers appear to take direction from a Republican Party event organizer, who points out the three anti-Bush demonstrators to be removed. The arrests were considered so faulty, State Attorney Mark Ober summarily dropped the charges. His spokeswoman said at the time, "We concluded that there was no likelihood of success at trial."

    The Secret Service claims First Amendment zones are necessary to protect the president's safety. It is a claim with no demonstrable validity. A person with a protest sign is no more or less dangerous to the president than a person without one. If the worry is that protesters will clash with the president's supporters, then the answer is not to exile one group, but to arrest those who would choose to escalate an ideological argument into a physical battle. Democracy and freedom can be messy at times. Occasional scuffles are a byproduct law enforcement agencies have a duty to handle without using their arrest powers to banish unpopular speakers.

    Recent court decisions have made it clear that presidents cannot be insulated from dissent. In 1997, when anti-abortion activist Rev. Patrick Mahoney attempted to organize a group of demonstrators along Pennsylvania Avenue for President Clinton's second Inaugural Parade, the National Park Service denied the group a permit. In overruling that judgment, the D.C. U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could not have been more blunt: "If the free speech clause of the First Amendment does not protect the right of citizens to 'inject' their own convictions and beliefs into a public event on a public forum, then it is difficult to understand why the Framers bothered including it at all."

    The government defended its position by noting that Mahoney had been granted a permit for a demonstration in two other areas on Inauguration Day, just not along the parade route. To that the court said: "(The government has) offered us no authority for the proposition that (it) may choose for a First Amendment actor what public forums it will use. Indeed, it cannot rightly be said that all such forums are equal. The very fact that the government here struggles to bar the speech it fears or dislikes from one forum while offering, whether freely or grudgingly, access to another belies the proposition of equality."

    The president's supporters and detractors have an equal right to stand at the same site, at the same time, and tell him what they think. "First Amendment zones" are the antithesis of America's free speech tradition.

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