Editor's Letter: The Issue is Free Speechby Theodore Hamm
"If the city wants a big political event here, it has to accommodate big political activity."
—U.S. District Judge Gary Feess, striking down L.A.’s attempt to restrict free speech to designated zones for the 2000 Democratic convention.
Although a party convention, by definition, is a large political event, our city leaders have presented next summer’s Republican gathering in a different light. According to Jonathan Tisch of Loews Hotels, who also heads the city’s tourism agency, "The convention coming to New York is so important economically and emotionally that it’s necessary for all 8 million New Yorkers—no matter what their party stripes are—to support this event." Surely all city residents rallied to the defense of Mayor Bloomberg when the nefarious Tom DeLay threatened to move the festivities onto a cruise ship. After all, if there’s one thing the Republicans will be bringing to town, it’s big bucks.
It would be foolish, of course, to pretend that this is just another convention of like-minded people coming together. This is not simply a gathering of the American Numismatic Association, the Modern Language Association, or any other group of out-of-town jaspers who go unnoticed unless they neglect to take off their name tags when they hit the streets of Midtown. No, the party faithful are coming to the city at the end of August in order to pay homage to their leaders, and to make a very political statement. And most certainly do these folks have a right to project themselves as the party that is truly representing freedom, making amends for 9/11, and so on.
But other folks have a First Amendment right to present an opposing point of view. Everyone knows there will be protest, so the questions involve where it will take place and what kinds of restrictions will be implemented. The lessons from LA and Philadelphia in 2000 are not at all encouraging. In both cities, activist groups joined with the ACLU to fight against the "free speech zones" proposed by local authorities. After gaining the right to protest near the respective conventions, activists in both instances then encountered police hostility vastly disproportionate to the number of provocateurs present. As Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, wrote in the LA Times, "instead of arresting the lawbreakers, police used their behavior as a pretext for dispersing all of those gathered, subjecting many who were peacefully standing by to unwarranted abuse—baton blows, rubber bullets and tear gas." In Philadelphia, former NYPD second-in-command John Timoney led a campaign of mass arrests, which was followed in many cases by the issuance of excessive bail.
Exactly how free speech will be during either of next summer’s conventions has yet to be determined. Here in New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s stance—denying a permit to march—during last February’s antiwar protests shows that he is no champion of the First Amendment. Hundreds of thousands of people shivered their way through the city nonetheless. Given that weather won’t hold anyone back in late August, the question remains whether or not city leaders, or the party they invited, will uphold the Constitution.