Free Speech in the 21st Century

The award for Least Surprising News Story of the Day comes from page A02 of tomorrow’s (Aug. 22) Washington Post. Peter Baker recounts the tale of an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of two people arrested in West Virginia at a Fourth of July event. Their crime? Maybe you remember this one: they wore anti-Bush t-shirts.

A Presidential Advance Manual from October, 2002, provides an interesting glimpse inside the Bush administration’s policy toward free speech:

Among other things, any event must be open only to those with tickets tightly controlled by organizers. Those entering must be screened in case they are hiding secret signs. Any anti-Bush demonstrators who manage to get in anyway should be shouted down by “rally squads” stationed in strategic locations. And if that does not work, they should be thrown out.

But that does not mean the White House is against dissent — just so long as the president does not see it. In fact, the manual outlines a specific system for those who disagree with the president to voice their views. It directs the White House advance staff to ask local police “to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in the view of the event site or motorcade route.

The manual came to light recently under subpoena from the ACLU, and seems to reinforce a common perception of duplicity about the Bush administration, that since dissent cannot be suppressed outright, it ought to be marginalized. It is one thing to say, “You have the right to express yourself,” and quite another that, “You can express yourself only in ways that will not be heard, and cannot influence events.”

Throughout Bush’s presidency, the administration has notoriously restricted access to presidential events in order to frame a rosy picture for the American people, to promote the false notion that all is well, and the president enjoys robust and diverse support. If the softball questions and mindless applause for pabulum answers did not tip folks off, let this latest chapter have its say. As ACLU attorney Jonathan Miller stated, it seems that the White House “has a policy of excluding and/or attempting to squelch dissenting viewpoints from presidential events”.

Guidelines for event staff and volunteers include screening audiences for signs and other potential items of protest that the Secret Service does not bother with, and also assembling teams to artificially challenge natural protests; that is, while one side may well be protesting genuinely, the opposition is coordinated by advance staff and volunteers.

Yes, it’s dishonest. No, we should not be surprised.

Perhaps most discouraging what comes when I consider that this is a sign of aging. Suddenly I wonder what ever happened those odd decades when heavy metal music, and then rap, compelled so many people to say, “You have the right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean you get to offend anyone.” A disgusting compromise, yes, but at least there was a pretense of moral offense. In the twenty-first century, the limits of free speech seem to have more to do with political convenience than anything else.

Even more disgusting, although a commonplace notion these days, is the note that the U.S. government settled the t-shirt lawsuit for $80,000 while refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing. This trend is just sickening: “Here, have some prize money. But remember, this is just because we’re such nice, generous people. After all, nobody actually did anything wrong.”