‘Free Speech’ Zones Aren’t Free

Imagine a vacant lot covered in patches of trodden grass and fire ant beds. Around the lot, envision a nine-foot-high steel security fence. Sometimes a stray protestor will trudge through a gap in the fence, take his place on a worn wooden podium and begin voicing opinions. Sometimes the sound system will fail, but it doesn’t really matter. There isn’t anyone else in the “pen” to listen anyway. This space, dear readers, is called a “free speech zone.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m writing about some fictional Orwellian dystopia of the future. However, I’m not. “Free speech zones” made their latest appearance at last week’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Ever since 1988, party conventions have established zones cordoned off from the general convention area for those who feel a need to protest, petition or exercise other forms of free speech.

According to the Supreme Court, speech restrictions are constitutional if they are neutrally applied, serve a significant government interest and provide alternative means of communications. Defenders of “free speech zones” argue that they are necessary to maintain order and public safety, and act as an alternative (read: safe) means of communication. I argue, however, that “free speech zones,” as they are currently set up, do less to protect public safety than they do to inhibit a protestor’s access to a necessary audience.

I will admit, chaos could easily ensue if protestors were allowed to run amok at a political convention. However, individuals have a right to be heard by their targeted audience.

When protestors are confined to walled pens, sometimes hundreds of feet away from convention sites, they are being denied their right to protest before an audience. An ostracized vacant lot functioning as a “free speech zone” is no alternative means of communication, as it functionally eliminates the possibility of anyone listening. No, I’m not arguing that every protestor deserves a captive audience, or that protestors should be allowed at all places in the convention area. Protestors should, however, have a right to a space that is close enough to the convention that attendees, press members and politicians will hear them.

Some say that this is a public safety issue, that mass protesting may lead to acts of violence. They’ll bring up “The Battle in Seattle,” when 40,000 protestors clashed with police during the World Trade Organization in 1999, causing considerable damage in the city.

I agree that we cannot have masses of protestors taking over cities. However, I don’t believe vacant “free speech zones” do much to prevent such mob violence. In fact, I argue that such zones could easily fuel such mobs. If protestors felt as though they were not being heard when holding their bullhorns and their signs, they would be likely to use other means to get their point across. By placing them in “pens” away from the action of convention sites, we take away the potential power of their words and force them to resort to other, more disruptive means of protest. Our obsession with potential protest violence thereby easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as disruption becomes the only way to garner attention from convention attendees. If we allowed protestors to be heard, perhaps closer to convention areas, we could help restore faith in the effectiveness of non-violent verbal protest.

As an activist myself, I’m deeply disappointed by the presence of an ostracized “free speech zone” at a political convention. When I hold up a sign, march in a parade or chant at a rally, I do so because I believe my voice has the potential to affect social change. I was taught to believe this by a society that has ensured for me the right to assemble and protest, a society that produced non-violent social change activists in the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gloria Steinem.

Without the ability to protest before the movers and shakers that attend political conventions, we peaceful activists lose our power to affect positive change, and the American legacy of grassroots social activism becomes little more than a dream. To restore the power of words, Americans must ensure that political protestors are heard.

Emilia Truluck is a College Freshman from Savannah, Georgia majoring in Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.