June 10, 2009

"Free Speech" Zones in Providence

Monique Chartier

First of all, ya gotta love the name. Some spin meister someplace was on all sixteen cylinders when s/he thought of that term for curbing the speech of protesters by herding them away from the action.

"Free speech zones" have featured at the national conventions of both the Democrat and Republican parties, where the phrase and the practice attained national prominence. While we will probably never know, therefore, the partisan affiliation of the spin meister who originally coined the term, it should be noted that it was organizers of a democratic convention (2004 in Boston) who ratcheted the concept up to the next level of physically caging protesters. (The elephants have, so far, refrained from emulating.)

Fast forward to free speech channeling efforts here and now.

Foreseeing a large turnout of protesters, the city has marked certain designated areas for demonstrations and is asking protest groups to register prior to the start of the annual gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which opens here Friday.

Under no circumstance should any protester headed for the US Conference of Mayors in our capitol city register with anyone. Sure,

There will not be any penalty for protesters that fail to register

but the fact of the matter is that the request is being made by a person of authority. The concept of opting out may not be readily apparent to everyone. I wonder, therefore, if it is constitutional to even make such a request. Certainly, the concept of requiring a protester to first register is unconstitutional. For the ease of reference of civil liberty types, the registration form has been placed, bold as brass, on the City of Providence's "First Amendment and Protest Information for the US Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting" webpage. "First Amendment and Protest Information" - it sounds like they hunted out that spin meister to name this page.

As for the "free speech" zones, renamed "public viewing" areas (aren't zoos also public viewing areas?), if the city is relying on the precedent set by national political conventions of restricting protesters to such areas, it could be a dubious proposition. However deplorable the establishment of free speech zones at political conventions may be, such events take place on private property. The property owner or lessee is presumably free to dictate where a visitor may or may not go on the premises and even to refuse entry to certain visitors. Accordingly, it seems to this highly amateur armchair non-attorney that such restrictions could apply to the public right-of-way only for very narrow reasons.

Providence officials have repeatedly used the word "safety" as they have set up "public viewing areas" and issued the request for protesters to register; safety, then, must be one of the few bases for such restrictions. It is important, however, that officials not abuse that word or exaggerate concerns of danger. Under such circumstances, "safety measures" can quickly cross the line from prudent to smothering and, thereby, leave the arena of public safety for the world of silence-your-opponent politics.

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Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for putting our capital city under virtual martial law this weekend. It's paranoia at its finest.
Certainly explains how David and John DePetro have suddenly become BFFs.

Posted by: rhody at June 11, 2009 12:15 AM

Dan Yorke said he was on the same side of an issue with Crowley for the first time he could recall.
It's a no-brainer.At the risk of sounding trite,if they can do this to Crowley,the firefighters,and DARE this week,they can do it to you or me next week.
There is no reasonable expectation of violence or disorder-this isn't Seattle.
When the big hats have a powow,they should expect public demonstrations on some issues.
No one forced any of them to become mayors.

Posted by: joe bernstein at June 11, 2009 1:57 AM

BTW Jerzyk showed some integrity and called out Cicilline over this.That was a pleasant surprise,because he has always tended to support Cicilline except on the waterfront development question

Posted by: joe bernstein at June 11, 2009 2:00 AM

I can understand asking protest groups to "register" or at least giving advanced notice, but certainly not individual citizens. I think the reason for identifying groups is to know who to hold acocuntable in case things get messy .. in other words, if there is violence or property damage. When you're dealing with that many type-A personalities with a deep-seated grudge, enclosed in a confined space, it may ... not go well.

Although I am a fan of running a tight ship and order out of chaos, etc., I'm not a huge fan of having cordoned-off areas where US Constitutional rights are simply deemed "okay," thereby infering that the Constitution doesn't apply to the rest of the city. It's not a good precedent.

PS Since it looks like we're likely to get the "worst case scenario" regarding the protests this week, I may as let this cat out of the bag, too. It was brought to my attention several weeks ago that the firefighters union was planning to picket during WaterFire on Saturday. I would hope that they would reconsider that, if it is still under any consideration at all. If they have a problem with the mayor, fine, but don't take it out on the rest of us. From a purely practical standpoint, it's not good politics. It would be my hope that they would specifically disavow the possibility of doing it.

PPS In case the tie-in isn't obvious, WaterFire uses actual fire (and hence, the fire marshal and some firefighters are usual present at times during it for "safety" reasons). In addition, this particular one is being sponsored in part by the US Conference of Mayors (as well as Waste Management -- how appropriate). We are hopeful, in the event they do picket, that they don't do anything to interupt the event itself, or to even do anything to curtail certain planned fire-related activities from occuring. The general public, many of whom travel from out-of-state to the event, should not have to be collateral damage in this little war between the union and the mayor.

Posted by: Will at June 11, 2009 2:05 AM

I wouldn't expect to see any pickets at Waterfire.

And thanks.

Posted by: michael at June 11, 2009 7:59 AM

Thanks. I certainly hope so! Again, I think you have every right to picket the conference, if you feel it will make your point. I'm just worried about the public being used as pawns by all involved, in what has clearly become a personal matter between the mayor and the union.

Posted by: Will at June 11, 2009 12:03 PM

People-let's think here.First,I have no firends or relatives who are firemen.
In this society where executives of irresponsible investment firms make millions while robbing the life savings of working people,are we supposed to begrudge firemen smething extra?
These people will go into an inferno to get you out because they are dedicated.I do not think firefighters take the job to get rich.
They are ready to take a lungfull of smoke and flame to get you out alive.
I can never forget a newscast I saw in Chicago of a fireman hanging onto a ladder with one hand while stretching out to grab a 12 year old girl leaping from a flame filled window.He got her with one hand and pulled her to safety.
The reporters tried to interview him and he just said it was his job and all he worried about was not being able to reach her because the truck couldn't get any closer.
Compare that to John Simmons' compensation package or Esserman's.Remember Esserman was never on the street for a day.

Posted by: joe bernstein at June 11, 2009 3:28 PM

If Joe B and I agree on something, you know you've really screwed up.

Posted by: rhody at June 11, 2009 4:01 PM

Right on Joe.
Cicilline has not met with the union representatives until yesterday. Firefighters do not strike so the only way for them to communicate their displeasure with the fact that there has not been a willigness to sit down with them by the mayor is to voice it publicly. These protests are the way they have chose. All Cicilline has to do is pick up the phone. It seems that he is cut from the same cloth as the jerks in East Providence who refuse to sit down with the teachers.

Posted by: Phil at June 11, 2009 4:14 PM


I almost agreed with you, until you through in the East Providence dig.

"It seems that he is cut from the same cloth as the jerks in East Providence who refuse to sit down with the teachers."

The East Providence School Committee has repeatedly, in both public and private, told the teachers that they are ready willing and able to negotiate for a new contract. They also were negotiating with them before and after the contract expired in October 31st. They have also been to arbitration sessions, as well. The teachers union knows the door is wide open; they just don't like what will be in the room once they walk through that door.

Posted by: Will at June 11, 2009 4:57 PM

It's been refreshing thus far not to have been bashed on this forum on this issue. I know what the general view of unions are for most of the contributors on this board.

Our (Prov FF's) treatment here has been much more fairminded than we've recieved from the media.

Understand that even though there are intense ill feelings between us and Cicilline, THIS picket is not personal. We would much rather have a signed, up-to-date, fair contract than to spend the entire weekend walking the streets of Providence.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at June 11, 2009 5:31 PM

I'm with the firefighters all the way on this one. According to Doughty, they've been offering cuts to try and seal a contract with the Mayor.

Cicilline is just being a stubborn idiot and I hope people remember his lack of leadership skills and his complete lack of understanding the contract difficulties for the last FIVE DAMN YEARS!

I am not a union man and I'm not a government man but when it takes FIVE DAMN YEARS to not gain a single inch in remedying this situation, that's just poor, poor political leadership.

Kudos to Doughty for trying to get this done and kudos to Cianci for trying to facilitate some sort of dialog between the two.

Cicilline, pack your bags. You will not even win a seat on a bus in 2010.

Posted by: Roland at June 13, 2009 12:04 AM
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