How free is free speech?

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by DC_DEEP, Jan 18, 2007.

  1. DC_DEEP

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    I know that many people in the USA are confused about what, exactly, constitutes free speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment. I thought I was fairly clear on it, until I read this article in today's Washington Post. I was mystified; I looked up the statute. Read 'em and weep, my fellow citizens.

    washingtonpost.com - nation, world, technology and Washington area news and headlines

    From the article:

    You might call Sheila Stumph a habitual offender. Her crime: civil disobedience.

    Like countless other protesters drawn to the nation's capital over the years, Stumph isn't the type to keep quiet about the world's ills, as she sees them. It's her nature to speak up, to demonstrate, to loudly beg to differ until the police haul her away.

    How many arrests?

    "Oh, maybe nine or 10," she said yesterday, bundled against the cold outside the Supreme Court. It was the 30th anniversary of the resumption of capital punishment in the United States, and a dozen activists, including Stumph, 29, of North Carolina, showed up to protest the death penalty. Nine of the demonstrators planned to be arrested (though not Stumph, who had her 3-month-old daughter with her).
    <...>
    She watched from the sidewalk as nine protesters -- including her husband, Scott Langley, 30 -- waited in line with tourists on the marble plaza in front of the court building, then stepped out and unfurled a 30-foot banner: "STOP EXECUTIONS!" Police moved in casually, allowing the demonstrators a few minutes to chant and make speeches before they were asked to disperse.

    They, of course, refused. It's against the law to "make a harangue" on Supreme Court property. The officers calmly handcuffed the passive protesters.
    <...>
    Paul Duggan, staff writer

    The section of US Code is 40 USC 6135, and the text is as follows (my emphasis):


    -CITE-
    40 USC Sec. 6134 01/03/05

    -EXPCITE-
    TITLE 40 - PUBLIC BUILDINGS, PROPERTY, AND WORKS
    SUBTITLE II - PUBLIC BUILDINGS AND WORKS
    PART C - FEDERAL BUILDING COMPLEXES
    CHAPTER 61 - UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT BUILDING AND GROUNDS
    SUBCHAPTER IV - PROHIBITIONS AND PENALTIES

    -HEAD-
    Sec. 6134. Firearms, fireworks, speeches, and objectionable
    language in the Supreme Court Building and grounds

    -STATUTE-
    It is unlawful to discharge a firearm, firework or explosive, set fire to a combustible, make a harangue or oration, or utter loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds.

    -SOURCE-
    (Pub. L. 107-217, Aug. 21, 2002, 116 Stat. 1183.)

    -MISC1-

    I can certainly understand that there would be some restrictions inside the Supreme Court building; but restricting free speech and peaceable assembly outside the building is just simply outrageous - and patently not Constitutional. As long as a person is not blocking access or making threats or creating a physical hazard, the First Amendment applies... or so I thought.
     
  2. Lex

    Lex
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    Wow. When did they sneak that shit into law?
     
  3. DC_DEEP

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    As best I can tell, it was passed in Aug 1949, and revised on January 3, 2005.
     
  4. Lex

    Lex
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    I simply can not accept how lawmakers go about bastardizing the principles that are there to protect everyone. Damn.
     
  5. B_big dirigible

    B_big dirigible New Member

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    It's not outrageous at all. The US consists of 3 million square miles. Does the First Amendment really say anything about your right to disrupt other people's business in all of that area?

    The First Amendment doesn't mean that a protester or anyone else has the right to prevent anyone else from being heard. "Speech" isn't just the process of batting one's gums; it implies communication, which in turn implies a speaker and a listener (or a writer and a reader, etc). The government can't arrest you for saying "The king is a fink." But since it's about communication, the government also can't prevent anyone from hearing you say "The king is a fink" by leaving you there unmolested but clearing listeners out of the area, or by making loud noises while you say "The king etc".

    Now, does the First guarantee you the right to set up bullhorns anywhere you please for the purpose of drowning out anyone in the area with anything else to say? It's your free speech, after all, just a little louder than usual. But you are then interfering with someone else's communications. Loud noise tends to do that. The government isn't allowed to do it, by the First. Should you be allowed to do it? Of course your aren't the government, and the First Amendment doesn't strictly apply to you. The First doesn't say that you can't try to prevent someone else from saying some message which doesn't parrot yours, or otherwise fit your agenda. But don't expect any sympathy from me if you try to do it.

    So, by yacking in a particular area, what is a protester trying to achieve? It could be innocent - perhaps he just wants to attract the TV cameras, which are attracted to noise and movement. That's the purpose of all those tedious chants by strikers and similar types - publicity. But it can easily cross the line into obstruction of someone else's message. That jerk who tries to disrupt funerals of servicemen, chanting that God is punishing the US for rampant immorality, comes to mind. His purpose is not just publicity, it seems to me to be pretty clearly disruption, and hence intolerable.

    Now why do people approach the Supreme Court building? To be harangued? Probably not. They usually have business inside and don't care to be molested or obstructed whilst on their way to it. Hence the rationale for keeping the immediate area clear of creepazoids.

    London has (or had, last time I was there) a good haranguing area in Hyde Park. One could deliver any old stupid speech there without disrupting anyone else's business, and there was plenty of room for those interested to get close enough to hear. But an arrangement like that wouldn't appeal to those more interested in disruption than free speech.

    Protecting disruption, by pretending you can't distinguish it from free speech, trivializes the First Amendment. The First Amendment has several sections, each of which rank up among the best political ideas anyone ever had. It's much too important to abuse and dilute by trivialization. It was meant to allow Tom Paine to publish Common Sense, and Jefferson to write the Virginia Resolutions, not for every twerp with nothing better to do to harass busy people.

    Note also that it's not Civil Disobedience in a Thoreauvian sense if the disobeyer isn't arrested. The arrest is part of the deal, as Henry made clear.
     
  6. DC_DEEP

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    big d, please re-read my post. I actually do have a pretty good understanding of the First Amendment, and what it actually protects and from whom.

    I made it very clear that blocking access or threatening or creating a physical hazard or disrupting business are not protected.

    It is also very clear that the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court building is a public area, and holding up banners or chanting (not with a bullhorn, just chanting) is protected.

    Do I have a right to protest peaceably on another person's private property? No. Do I have a right to protest peaceably on public property? Absolutely I do.
     
  7. LeeEJ

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    Free speech debate or not, I'd consider this aspect --

    Being the "highest court in the land", there are definitely going to be some big, highly controversial issues that end up there, along with all of the focused energy from people on both sides of such debates.

    If people were allowed to protest and shout and whatnot on the grounds of the building, and if both sides decided that they wanted that space, then you're going to end up with an awful lot of tension in a small space. And, they'll be much too close, possibly enough to disrupt business within the building itself.

    There's still a lot of space in DC for protesting. The Mall itself is just two (long) blocks away. Asking to protest around the Supreme Court itself isn't going to do any good anyway. If anything, and in a worst case, it would only slow down or disrupt whatever debate they're trying to hold inside. It doesn't make much sense to want to prevent the making of a decision.

    Honestly, I don't think this is much of a free speech issue.
     
  8. LeeEJ

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    Adding on --

    When I wrote "the grounds of the building", that's just what I meant.

    But, really, the line had to be drawn somewhere, and since I'd consider that persons entering & exiting need access to do the jobs that we want them to do, I'd also want the sidewalks to be clear.

    Protesters can make all the noise they want, sure. But the debate isn't going to be held outside. It's done deep inside those walls.
     
  9. DC_DEEP

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    LeeEJ, you are echoing almost exactly what big dirigible posted. From the article, I did not get the sense that anyone was blocking access or disrupting court proceedings. I understood that the message was the offense, not its presentation. If it is inappropriate to protest in front of the Supreme Court building, where is it appropriate? It is a free speech issue. Either the sidewalk is public or it is not. Which is it? Peaceful protests in Franklin Park have also been dispersed with excessive force, simply because the White House crew doesn't like it. Even non-protesters - innocent passersby - were being clubbed, pepper-sprayed, arrested, and hauled off to jail.

    Protest is a symbolic act. It makes no sense to protest a Supreme Court case by standing quietly in Anacostia. Standing quietly, holding a sign, in front of the Supreme Court would make more sense.

    I will concede that the World Bank protesters got out of hand the last time around, but that was because the police were blocking off public streets during the World Bank meeting.
     
  10. Lex

    Lex
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    Last I checked, sidewalks, streets and parks were public spaces and places where people can and should peaceably assemble.

    Man, some peope scare me.
     
  11. kalipygian

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    I doubt justices, lawyers, and staff even use the front entrance, too many steps and too many people they don't want to talk to. So they can hardly be obstructed from their business. (I've only seen it from outside front, in '68)

    And people who are denied use of channels are in the right in going outside them.
     
  12. DC_DEEP

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    Um, right. Reminds me of the saying (and I paraphrase) "anyone willing to give up liberty for security deserves neither."

    I'm still looking for the phrase "...except when it's inconvenient" in the First Amendment. Maybe I have the wrong edition, maybe I need the Cheney/Scalia translation. Mine may be out of date, probably worded like those weirdos talked around the late 18th - early 19th century. Or perhaps "...or abridging the right of the people" had a different meaning then...
     
  13. DC_DEEP

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    If anyone, protesting or not, is noisy enough to disrupt proceedings within the chambers, or blocking access, of course they should be arrested. But that isn't what the law says. That's the part that is really scary. It makes me sad that some people not only do not find it scary, but they actually defend it.
     
  14. spartalee

    spartalee New Member

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    Its reasonable I mean if hundreds of people constantly help protest then buisness could not progress. But if they did it out side and were causing no harm to public buisness or to others then it would be ok. your ammendments are only guaranteed until they impose on another person. then it becomes debatable since that person has the same rights and may think it is offending.
     
  15. Lex

    Lex
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    Without peaceful protest, the Civil Rights legislation that we have would never have passed. The cops, of course, sprayed those innocent men and women with fire hoses, sicked attack dogs on them and beat them with night sticks. How quickly we forget.
     
  16. DC_DEEP

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    Again, those arrested were not arrested for disturbing the peace - they were arrested for possessing a printed banner on public property. There was no indication that they were loud, blocking access, or infringing on any other person's rights.

    If I missed something, and any of you know of any reports of the protesters were blocking access or making an inordinate amount of noise, or harrassing other citizens, please by all means bring it to my attention.

    Otherwise, please explain to me (I'm a bit dense sometimes) how it can be illegal for a citizen to walk on a public sidewalk during normal business hours.
     
  17. LeeEJ

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    (I'm just a couple blocks away; I can see the Supreme Court from my roof, if it matters)

    It may not be a completely public space, especially in terms of who's got responsibility.

    For example -- to my knowledge, the sidewalk outside my building isn't wholly public. It's our job to make sure it's cleared of snow and ice, not the District's.

    Like I said, there are plenty of places to protest and get on CNN, and you don't have to go all the way across the river to do it. And, since it's still possible to do so without getting arrested, I'm still saying that it's not a free speech issue.
     
  18. DC_DEEP

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    Responsibility of maintenance has nothing to do with it. My homeowner's association requires all residents to keep the sidewalks clear of snow, but they are still public property. Do you think the District of Columbia would let you build a fence across your sidewalk? No, because the sidewalk is public property. Being able to see the Supreme Court building from your home? What difference does that make?

    And to "get on CNN" is not the point of a protest. And yes, it is a free speech issue.

    If I tell you "you may speak freely all you want, but only in your own home, and only when I tell you that you may" that is not free speech. That's the whole point of the free speech and peaceable assembly clauses. To say, "you may walk on that sidewalk, but only if you are not carrying a placard" IS an infringement of free speech, regardless of where else you may be able to do so.
     
  19. LeeEJ

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    Sigh...

    Remind me to never argue politics in a political town. Nobody ever gets the point.
     
  20. B_dxjnorto

    B_dxjnorto New Member

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    It sounds to me like they can unfurl the banner, they just can't chant. Am I right?
     
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