January 08, 2004

EARLIER TODAY, a reporter called me to ask about the "free speech" zones set up when Bush visited town. I said I don't mind keeping protesters where they don't pose a security threat, or block traffic, but that I don't like the "free speech zone" approach, especially when it really means relocating protesters to the boonies. This is America, I said. That's the free speech zone.

Now I notice that Kim Du Toit is saying the same thing. To be fair, this goes back before Bush -- the Secret Service has gotten steadily more officious and intrusive since Reagan was shot, and I remember reports of them towing away whole streets' worth of cars when Clinton attended parties in Georgetown. Naturally, it's gotten worse since 9/11.

But there has to be a limit, and ultimately, it's Bush who's responsible for the Secret Service's behavior.

UPDATE: Bill Quick observes: "Bush seems to be moving closer and closer to the line where I'll no longer be able to excuse his excesses in the name of national security."

Meanwhile, Bill Hobbs is defending Bush, and Donald Sensing is responding in the comments.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More here, plus some historical perspective.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's a letter from Congressman Matt Salmon complaining about Secret Service behavior in 1997:

The First Lady was in Arizona yesterday to raise money for the Democratic Party. Nothing wrong with that. But consider the following, reported by Tribune Newspapers of Arizona in today's editions (emphasis added):

"Reporters at the Monday afternoon speech were kept at arm's length from the first lady by Secret Service agents, who warned the press not to yell out questions." . . .

The Secret Service is paid to protect the President and his family from physical harm, not to protect them from tough questions from Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas.

The abuse of power continues...

As I say, it's been an issue for a while. And although there are legitimate security concerns in wartime, it's important to be sure that what's going on is about security, not censorship. Donald Sensing has more, here. On the other hand, reader Bob Rogers says I've got this backwards:

It seems to me that "the whole country is a free speech zone" is a good defense of the Secret Service. They limit speech in a very small space for a very short time. It's a great big country out there, say anything you want. But of course, the protestors don't want to say their piece on the mall or any of the other places that our government maintains in part to facilitate protest. They want to protest in the president's face. Why? Because there is "news value" in disrupting the president's speech. (Meaning that it makes for "good" TV pictures, not that it is really news.) The idea that anyone should stand for this type of political theater in the name of free speech is absurd. If someone tries to disrupt your class with placards and chants, what are you going to do? You are an employee of the state Tennessee. Is your situation different from the presidents?

Hmm. Well, it's certainly true that the protest is, in a sense, parasitic on the President's visit. But preventing disruption is fine. What's not fine is using security as an excuse to shut people up. People have a right to peaceably assemble, and to petition their leaders for a redress of grievances, and that suggests to me that speech in the vicinity of leaders, so long as it's non-disruptive, is specially protected.