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Let’s hope convention cities respect right to protest
Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center

To paraphrase a popular TV commercial, free speech is “priceless.”

As protesters and delegates gather for this year’s national political conventions — Democrats in Denver starting Aug. 25, Republicans in St. Paul Sept. 1 — that’s a constitutional principle well worth noting.

The conventions and their host cities are bracing for thousands of demonstrators. For Democrats, one group plans actions “commemorating” the violence-filled 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The GOP will see protests from groups including the anti-war “Code Pink” and Veterans for Peace, as well as individuals speaking out on myriad other issues that will remain after the Bush administration.

The First Amendment requires that police and public officials have more supportable reasons to shut down protests than vague concerns over order, safety or national image. They certainly can’t legally stop the messengers just because they don’t like the message.

It’s also worth noting that there can be a hefty price to pay for running roughshod over free speech. New York City, just the other day, provided the latest example of that combined constitutional and fiscal lesson.

News reports said the city agreed Aug. 19 to pay $2 million to settle claims by 52 people arrested in April 2003 in a street protest against the then-recent U.S. invasion of Iraq. A New York Times column reported the city also spent an estimated additional $1 million in preparing a legal defense it no longer needs.

The Big Apple protesters were charged with blocking pedestrian traffic — a common charge when police break up public demonstrations. Though city officials made no admission about the validity of the charges, a Times account said videotapes showed the protest didn’t disrupt the public except perhaps where it “slowed a few people carrying coffee into work.” On the original charges, just two people went to trial: Both were acquitted, and charges against the other 50 were dismissed.

The lesson isn’t limited to Gotham. In 2007, Seattle’s insurance company agreed to pay $1 million to settle damages owed 175 people wrongly arrested in 1999 for being in a “no-protest zone” during a peaceful demonstration against the World Trade Organization. A jury already had held the city liable for the improper arrests. The payout followed an earlier $800,000 settlement stemming from the same WTO meeting.

The District of Columbia paid out millions to settle claims stemming from arrests in 2002 during protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. And after the last Republican National Convention, in New York, the city settled for more than $230,000 with 108 people out of nearly 1,800 people charged with disorderly conduct or obstructing justice. Officials said more than 90% of the charges were dismissed without trial.

In each example, the government shut down protests “now” and dealt with damages — to taxpayers and constitutional rights — “later.” Even on a practical level, it’s not fair that taxpayers must fork over hard-earned money to fund settlements paid out for preventing others from speaking out. More important, that’s not how free speech and democracy work.

Well-expressed or wacky. Irritating or illuminating. Respectful or raucous. There’s nothing in the 45 words of the First Amendment that sets out any such qualifications or limits on protests. Time and again in our history, from women’s suffrage to civil rights to tax protests, to name just some, voices first raised in the streets — to the disgust or disappointment of some — have led to significant, positive changes in law and American life.

Yes, local, state and federal officials can maintain public safety, protect the rights of others and guard against kooks and terrorists who would do this nation harm. But the “order” in law-and-order doesn’t mean a mandate to enforce a government sense of orderliness.

Convention planners, intent on scoring political points with a well-run show, and city officials aiming to present a positive urban image, might prefer otherwise. But Americans have a right to express themselves in ways that ensure that public officials, and even would-be presidents, will see their signs and hear their voices.

The citizens of Denver and St. Paul, and Americans everywhere, should hope officials in those cities already have considered both the constitutional and monetary costs of silencing voices that have a right to be heard.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail:


Seattle to pay $1 million to wrongly arrested WTO protesters

City's insurance company agrees to settle case after federal jury finds city liable for detaining demonstrators without probable cause. 04.04.07

D.C. agrees to pay arrested protesters $1 million
Settlement of lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of more than 120 people, is largest payout to date by city for police actions during September 2002 demonstrations. 08.03.07

Group will protest DNC's 'freedom cage,' organizer tells court
Recreate 68 co-founder's comments come during trial over whether Denver's designated parade routes, demonstration zone accommodate activists' free-speech rights. 07.30.08

Court won't order changes to DNC security plan
Federal judge concludes parade routes, demonstration zone established by Denver officials don't infringe on protesters' free-speech rights. 08.07.08

Protesters challenge restrictions at GOP convention
Two lawsuits filed in Minnesota state court claim that St. Paul city, police officials are restricting free-speech rights by confining demonstrators to designated area. 08.13.08

Company to ditch anti-nuke billboard at airline's request
'It's disturbing that a private tenant (Northwest Airlines) in a public, taxpayer funded building can dictate' what ads can be displayed, says Union of Concerned Scientists media director. 08.20.08

NYC to pay $2 million to anti-war protesters
City agrees to settle lawsuit brought by 52 activists who say they were unjustly arrested in 2003 while demonstrating against Iraq war. 08.21.08

Denver protesters don't wait for convention kick-off
City, police officials defend efforts to make Democratic convention host city as accessible as possible to protest, interest groups. 08.25.08

Denver police, protesters clash as Democrats convene
Authorities arrest about 100 people after officers in riot gear use pepper spray to quell crowd about a mile from convention site. 08.26.08

ABC News: Denver police push staffer into traffic, arrest him
Producer Asa Eslocker faces charges of interference, trespass and failure to obey a lawful order. 08.28.08

Public access to GOP convention is adequate, Minn. court rules
Judge says although protest area isn't ideal, it's 'constitutionally adequate,' comparing favorably with public space set up for other national political conventions. 08.28.08

Denver police arrest 10 on last day of Democratic convention
Arrests since last weekend total 152; ABC News official says he hopes charges will be dropped against producer. 08.29.08

AP photographer, TV-radio host arrested during anti-war protest
286 people were arrested yesterday in St. Paul, including two producers with syndicated Democracy Now! show; all journalists were released by this morning. 09.02.08

Ky. journalism students arrested while covering anti-war protest
Edward C. Matthews and Britney D. McIntosh were still being held today though their newspaper adviser was released; 10 more arrests reported yesterday. 09.03.08

Minn. police release jailed Ky. journalism students
Britney McIntosh and Edward Matthews were photographing violent protests in St. Paul when they were arrested, held in jail for two nights. 09.04.08

Police arrest nearly 400 as GOP wraps up convention
At least 19 reporters assigned to cover protests were detained, including two AP journalists who were issued citations for unlawful assembly and then released. 09.05.08

Some question police after 800 arrests at GOP convention
AP requests accounting of treatment of two of its photographers; Reporters Committee asks officials to drop criminal citations issued to up to 20 detained journalists. 09.08.08

Journalists swept up in GOP convention protests won't face charges
'This decision reflects the values we have in St. Paul to protect and promote our First Amendment rights to freedom of the press,' mayor says in statement. 09.22.08

Stifling protest: bad choice between law and order
By Gene Policinski Managing media moments is no justification for shutting out or shutting down those with an off-the-script message. 08.26.07

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