PSO lives, dies by First Amendment

by Coralie Carlson

Students wielding homemade posters and shouting “One-two-three-four, we don’t want your racist war,” protesters curtailed a speech by former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson last winter at the Humphrey Center.
While the protests would have made past civil rights defenders proud, the protesters’ tactics spurred debate questioning if the activists overstepped their First Amendment rights.
At the Richardson event, more than 100 protesters — organized in part by the Progressive Student Organization — displayed posters outside of the Humphrey Center. During the ambassador’s speech, they entered the room and interrupted him with shouts and questions about foreign policy in Iraq.
Richardson stopped his presentation and answered questions from the activists before jetting off to his next appointment.
Later that year, the Progressive Student Organization dusted off their signs again — this time to use at the College of Liberal Arts commencement ceremony where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took the podium. Albright is the chief foreign policy maker in the country.
Students remained outside of Williams Arena, the commencement site, and distributed literature about the policies of the United States and the United Nations towards Iraq during their demonstration.
Critics contended the student organization went beyond their First Amendment rights and invaded the rights of others. An editorial in The Minnesota Daily accused protestors of becoming “freelance censors” because participants in the Richardson conference never heard his speech.
Some CLA graduates also expressed disdain for the protesters because it marred their day of celebration.
But members of the student organization defend their actions. Rebecca Pera, women’s studies and Spanish senior, said group members engage in heated debates about where the activists’ rights end and others’ begin when planning protests and events.
J Burger, a junior history student and protester, agreed. The group held about eight long and heated discussions preceding the Richardson event, trying to decide the best course of action. Similar talks preceded the Albright event.
“Part of the dialogue around that was to be very respectful of the graduates,” Burger said. “I think it was perfectly within our rights to go out there and give out leaflets.”
College Republican Bill Gilles, Carlson School of Management senior, said the First Amendment protects the organization’s protests, but the PSO abuses their rights.
“By using unreasonable means, they show themselves to be unreasonable,” Gilles said.
Yet scholars can’t reach a definite conclusion on the extent of free speech in civil disobedience.
“At what point does a protest become a danger for public order?” posited political science professor Gordon Silverstein. The courts aren’t clear on the issues, he said, but protesters need to determine whether their tactics are working or just angering their audience.
Protests aren’t the most effective means for groups to change policy, explained Virginia Gray, political science professor. She said letter-writing campaigns, testifying before decision-making bodies and giving money to candidates usually makes more of a difference, but not all groups have the resources to perform these tactics.
But protesters on campus said they also weighed the rights of the political speakers against the causes they believed in.
“Nothing the PSO has done can compare to what the U.S. government has done around the world,” said Anh Pham, philosophy and sociology senior, pointing to federal policies from welfare to supporting military regimes.
“This is our government,” Pham said. “It is our right and our duty to speak out against it.”