It’s difficult to conceive of anything more contrary to the spirit of robust democracy than a “free-speech zone” or a “protest zone.” Is speech confined behind a barricade truly free? Is a protest forced out of sight even meaningful?
Last month, a federal judge ruled that Cleveland’s regulations limiting protests and marches during the upcoming Republican National Convention violated the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. He ordered the city and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio to negotiate new rules that respected the rights of Americans to engage in political speech and peaceful protest in public spaces.
Notably, the ACLU represented both pro-Donald Trump groups and left-leaning groups. This was not a case of just liberal protesters wanting an opportunity to share a message contrary to the current GOP. It was about people with diverse views whose best chance to be heard is in large groups where news cameras are most likely to be.
Cleveland had tried to limit protest marches to times and places where they would be difficult to observe and few convention delegates and reporters would be present. The city also tried to designate practically all of downtown as an “event zone,” prohibiting items such as backpacks, bottles, cans and umbrellas in the area.
Some restrictions are both sensible and necessary — especially in a campaign season already marred by far too much violence. Officials have a duty to protect public safety. But they may not do so by completely squelching the free speech rights of citizens.
Cleveland had to be reminded that its duty is to protect citizens and their constitutional liberties, not the image of the Republican Party. Its officials would certainly prefer to minimize scenes of protesters during the contentious coronation of Trump as the party’s presidential nominee.
Philadelphia, which will host the Democratic National Convention later in July, also faces a lawsuit for rejecting an application for a march from City Hall to the convention site during rush hour. That city has no obligation to protect Hillary Clinton’s coronation from protest.
It is important that government restrictions on free speech serve compelling interests — public safety and security, primarily — and are as narrowly tailored as possible to serve those interests in the least restrictive ways.
That is even more essential when the speech in question is over an issue as vital and fundamental as who will be elected to serve as president of the United States.
The two major political parties do not want protests to dominate the coverage of their conventions. Too bad. That should not be the concern of local police departments, the Secret Service or local governments. Their duty is to keep people safe and to allow the free exercise of political expression.
Cleveland went too far and tried to shut citizens out of the meaningful ability to make themselves heard. The city and the ACLU reportedly have reached an agreement over less-restrictive rules.
Local government should worry more about protecting the fundamental liberties of Americans and less about the partisan wants of thin-skinned politicians and parties.