The First Amendment Faces Many Foes at the RNC

As youâÄôve probably noticed by now, our own quaint little downtown St. Paul has been transformed into something of a war zone. The images IâÄôve seen of the goings-on are pretty unnerving: mobs of anarchists swathed in bandanas smashing windows with hammers, swarms of Stormtrooper-esque cops and liberal amounts of tear gas and pepper spray fired upon the crowd. The city knew there would be protests and took steps to prepare, as evidenced by the well-armed teams of law enforcement warily hwatching the protester activity. There was certainly reason to suspect there would be trouble, as the last Republican National Convention, held in New York City in 2004, saw almost 1,500 arrests, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Most accounts of the various scuffles mention that itâÄôs been a comparatively small minority of protesters that have been involved in the destructive activity. Still, this is downtown St. Paul, whose previous claim to national fame was that little diner in the Mighty Ducks movie. ItâÄôs not exactly your typical First Amendment battleground âÄî until the politicians come to town. Like all political protests, the legal issue has been framed in the context of the First Amendment. Last July, U.S. District Court Judge Joan N. Ericksen wrote in an opinion that the âÄúquadrennial conventions have proven to be fertile ground in the recent past for legal challenges based on the First Amendment.âÄù In the case from which that statement was taken, âÄúThe Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War v. The City of St. Paul,âÄù Ericksen decided that the permit, issued by the city of St. Paul to the coalition for a protest march set to take place on Sept. 1, did not violate the groupâÄôs constitutional rights. The coalition had brought suit because of several disagreements with the permit they had been issued, including the proposed demonstrationâÄôs parade route, start time and end time. Citing a âÄúcompelling need for ity and the police department to engage in extensive planning to facilitate safe and orderly movement of vehicular and pedestrian traffic during the RNC,âÄù Ericksen denied the group their preferred route, which would have taken them from the state Capitol steps, around the perimeter of the Xcel Energy Center and back to the Capitol. Instead, the permit issued by the city of St. Paul was upheld, which allowed the group to march down to the northwest corner of the arena before turning around and going back the way they came. Ericksen quoted concerns of prior political demonstration cases, that âÄúat this and similar national security events, some significant portion of the demonstrators, among those who want the closest proximity to delegates or participants, consider assault, even battery, part of the arsenal of expression.âÄù Obviously, to some degree, Ericksen was proven right. Property has been damaged. The Connecticut delegates were sprayed with some sort of mystery bleach chemical. Of course, such behavior is nowhere near the protected speech sought by the protestors. Plenty of witnesses can attest that, as events have progressed, law enforcement has become increasingly aggressive. ItâÄôs the classic showdown between speech and security. Many protestors are, no doubt, disappointed with the restrictions on their speech but, as Ericksen pointed out in her opinion, itâÄôs a lot better than what previous conventions have offered. At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, protesters were supposed to be confined to a fenced-in parking lot 733 feet from the convention center where party leaders met. It was popularly dubbed the âÄúFreedom Cage,âÄù and largely ignored by protestors. To some degree, the concerns of organizers and law enforcement are understandable. The Constitution offers no protection to those who would destroy property or attack those of opposing views, no matter how vehement or self-righteous their opinions. The real problem arises in the demonstrated tendency of authorities to overreact against peaceful protesters in the wake of destructive neighboring protests. The anarchistsâÄô activity, in effect, serves to squelch free speech. And because of the inevitable violence, the law-abiding protesters are left with rulings like EricksenâÄôs, which restricts the uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate that the First Amendment was intended to foster, justified by notions of maintaining order. And then thereâÄôs the law enforcement. There can never be an excuse for public officials who exercise excessive violence against peaceful protesters acting within their Constitutional rights. Regardless of the tension, fear or frustration endured by law enforcement in the course of carrying out their duties, there is simply no qualified reason for violating peaceful protestors in the process of invoking their constitutionally given First Amendment rights. âÄîJake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]