Free speech in a bottle

Free speech is no longer free when officials can decide where it can exist.

Considering this week’s Democratic convention will be scripted beyond any Hollywood production, don’t expect much excitement from inside Boston’s Fleet Center. Don’t expect the atmosphere outside the convention to be much different considering protestors will be restricted to so-called “free speech zones.” Sadly, the convention will not be the celebration of democracy and discussion it could and should be.

Not only do the protest pens violate the spirit of the First Amendment, but they pose a danger to protestors. One poor law enforcement decision could lead to huge injuries, given highly concentrated groups of protestors. Trampling is not beyond reality given a static atmosphere of police and barbed wire is combined with large groups of emotional people.

The Democrats are not alone in their attempts to silence a vocal opposition. New York City officials recently denied permits to allow protests in Central Park during the Republican National Convention citing “potential damage to the grass.” When grass takes precedence over free speech, clearly something is amiss.

Both Democrats and Republicans claim they have “free speech zones” to ward off terrorists and prevent potential bombings. Such concerns, while remotely possible, are merely cop outs. Both parties are afraid of protestors raising awareness about issues that do not hold them in a favorable light, and it is easy to use fear to silence the dissident voices.

While the zones may be legal, free speech is no longer free when city officials can decide where it can be said. Not only are protests meant to raise awareness among third parties not directly involved but also to confront the groups that are being protested. Out of sight, out of range and out of mind is not what so many U.S. citizens have sacrificed for over the years.

Imagine the Vietnam War protests relegated to obscure city streets or the Civil Rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s limited to a few square blocks. Maybe the disdain the major parties have toward protests can partially explain why “American Idol” contestants receive more votes in a week than all primary elections candidates combined.