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Party conventions will bring another test for free speech

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Gene Policinski
May 31, 2008

Even as this most participatory presidential primary season comes to a close, there are questions about how much free speech – and in what formats – will be exercised or permitted in the next act of the election drama: the GOP and Democratic national conventions this summer.


The extended 2008 presidential primary season, which actually began in early 2007, has provided a lengthy opportunity for Americans, and candidates, to exercise their political free-speech rights.


By some counts, candidates have met in more than 40 broadcast debates involving both major parties since mid-2007. Debate settings have included traditional press panels, town-hall discussions and online questioning.


Caucuses, vigorous primary balloting and a wide array of initial candidates in both parties, with disparate views and backgrounds, have produced record voter turnouts. Perhaps the widest-ever display of public discussion ranged across media from Weblogs to talk radio to letters to the editor to public demonstrations.


As in 2004, with post-9/11 security concerns, there are questions about how much convention delegates in both parties will see of public protests at convention sites. Democrats meet in Denver Aug. 25-28; Republicans meet Sept. 1-4 in Minneapolis-St. Paul.


The Associated Press reported earlier this month that in Denver a lack of information about how police will control protesters and public demonstrations had led the American Civil Liberties Union to file a pre-emptive lawsuit. The ACLU contends officials intentionally aren’t disclosing parade routes or areas where non-delegates may assemble. The group claims that if plans for crowd control and public access around the Pepsi Center convention site aren’t made public soon, there won’t be enough time for courts to review any legal objections to those plans.


In 2004, particularly at the Democratic convention in Boston, protests were raised against the methods used to keep demonstrators from reaching (or even being within earshot of) delegates, including what critics called “cages” of concrete barriers, wire and netting used by police to control crowds.


Democrats may face reminders of the violent collisions of police and protesters from an earlier time: A group called Recreate 68 vows to mimic the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with its echoes of so-called police riots and street clashes with public and press.


For Republicans, objections have been made to planned parade routes leading to the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul. At least one group called the proposed route, announced in May, unworkable and said police and city officials had ignored the wishes of those filing for parade permits. For their part, city leaders said the approved route would bring demonstrators within sight and sound of the Republican delegates.


Even free expression in cyberspace at the conventions is not without contention, if not strictly raising a First Amendment issue. A May 27 Washington Post story reported that the political blogosphere was in hot debate over plans to accommodate – or, as some see it, exclude – portions of this newest community of commentators at the Democratic convention.


On May 14, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean announced the selection of the State Blogger Corps, a 55-member group that will be seated with state and territory delegations during the convention. The 50 blogs were chosen from more than 400 applications; another group, a “general blogger pool,” will be selected soon.


"The members of the DemConvention State Blogger Corps represent a broad spectrum of voices,” said convention CEO Leah D. Daughtry in the Democratic National Convention Committee news release announcing the blogger group. But, the Post reported, critics say a large majority of the elite corps is white, ignoring African-American and Latino groups that have been large voting blocs in Democratic primaries. Some are calling for the DNCC to add more than a dozen black and Latino bloggers each to the first group.


Political speech is the core kind of speech the First Amendment was intended to protect, with courts historically applying the strictest tests in cases involving government attempts at restrictions. But in the Age of Terror, the balance often swings toward safety and security.


In 2004, one federal judge, citing anti-terrorism concerns, approved as necessary the restrictive Boston demonstration zones, even though he agreed they were “an affront to free expression.”


Some measures for security and public safety at these party political fests are needed, of course. We’ll know in a few weeks whether protests, demonstrations and public participation in the political process are again faced with “an affront” or are allowed “out-front” at the 2008 conventions.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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