Thursday, October 29, 2009

Local, Regional, and National Protests

This post points out the apparently different attitudes and practices of Indians and Pakistanis when it comes to public protests.  In particular, the author notes that Indians tend to engage in localized protests, whereas Pakistanis have recently been galvanized on regional and national levels. 

In the United States, protesters organize on all levels, from the very local to the national, depending on the issue.  Some protests that start out as local events may lead to national movements.  The civil rights movement is a good example, and there are many others.  Some protests are distinctly local, as where a group assembles to protest city council practices or policies, or to assemble at a particularly symbolic public place.  Many factors, including the resources of the protesters, public support, and the nature of the precipitating cause of the protest, will influence its geography, size, and duration. 

The author of the post suggests that the relative infrequency of regional or national protests in India may have something to do with the presence and relative stability of democratic structures and institutions in that country.  Perhaps, but of course even in an advanced democracy like the U.S. one sees regional and national protests movements.  Some of the reticence in India may relate to cultural norms, or fear of official reactions to public dissent.  Or perhaps it is the case, as it appears to be in Japan, that the public lacks the necessary training to participate in effective public protests. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Do Public Protests Matter?

This entry at Freakonomics considers whether public protests "matter," in the sense that they lead to changes in policies, social movements, or group solidarity.  One thing the commenters agree upon is that public protests are rarely, if ever, immediately effective in any of these respects.  This raises the obvious question whether, in an age of instant communication and immediacy expectations, public protests are destined to decline over time.   

Monday, October 26, 2009

Exit Polling and Buffer Zones

Expressive zoning is a phenomenon that affects many forms of public speech across the expressive topography. In an effort to protect certain public places from disorderly displays, and certain audiences from intimidation, fraud, and other harms, laws and regulations often mark off spaces in which expression and assembly are prohibited. "Speech-free zones" have been erected near abortion clinics, government buildings, cemeteries, private residences, and polling places.

As reported here, a federal court has granted a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of a 100-foot buffer zone forbidding exit polling and other "expressive activity" near New Jersey polling places. In Burson v. Freeman (1992), the Supreme Court upheld a Tennessee law that prohibited the solicitation of votes and the display of campaign materials within 100 feet of entrance of any polling place. The Court concluded that Tennessee had compelling interests in preventing voter intimidation and election fraud, and that the 100-foot zone was adequately tailored to address these concerns. But at least ten courts have rejected bans or restrictions on exit polling near polling places. Most have found no evidence of disorderly conduct associated with the practice of sampling and interviewing voters near polling places. Moreover, there are concerns that buffer zones around polling places adversely affect the accuracy of exit polls, as voters are able to exit the area before a proper sample can be taken.

The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the buffer zone, opining that "the last 100 feet leading to a polling place belong to the voters on Election Day." The spaces in question, typically public sidewalks, streets, adn parking lots, do not "belong to the voters." They are traditional public forums, which ought if anything to "belong to" speakers. In any event, there is no reason voters cannot share the space with pollsters -- and even other speakers, so long as no disruption occurs. Buffer zones at polling places are part of a disturbing trend of protecting audiences from inconvenient public speech and assembly. The courts have been right to reject these spatial controls in the case of exit pollsters, who perform a valuable democratic function.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Places of Higher Learning

As discussed in Chapter 8 of the book, many public colleges and universities have essentially adopted the speech bureaucracy in place outside campus gates for the spaces within. Among other things, this includes application of insurance and permit requirements and designation of "speech zones." I call this a "Campus Order Management System," a variation of what political scientists have referred to as a "Public Order Management System" applicable in public places.

In many instances, campus officials change these policies, in particular the zoning requirements, after a lawsuit is filed or the press reports on the restrictions. This case, which involves the designation of speech zones and an insurance requirement at Arizona State University, seems to involve this pattern. The oral argument suggests that the case may be decided on mootness grounds. The plaintiffs want a judgment on the merits, both for precedential value and, one assumes, an award of attorneys' fees.

You can read more about speech zoning and other free speech issues on campuses across the country on the FIRE website, which is included in the links section of the blog.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Strength in Numbers

Hundreds of garment workers recently rallied in New York City to protest building and zoning plans for the garment district. The story reminded me of the battles waged by the urbanist Jane Jacobs against plans to develop lower Manhattan, although the stakes here are smaller. The clashes between Jacobs and Robert Moses are engagingly recounted in Anthony Flint's new book, Wrestling With Moses (Random House).

Protest Militarization and Counter-Measures

As recently reported in the New York Times, police arrested a Queens man for allegedly helping protesters at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh avoid police orders to disperse. In my book, I describe the new "militarized" environment at world summits like the G-20, political conventions, and other critical events. I recommend that protesters adapt to the new surveillance of public assembly and speech by using technology to network and coordinate. The arrested man was using Twitter to communicate with protesters in the streets. Eugene Volokh suggests that this may be a difficult case of what he calls "crime-facilitating speech." We'll have to wait for more facts to be reported to determine whether the tweets actually violated any law. The police are no doubt anxious to retain their technological advantage during public assemblies and protests, and to ensure compliance with lawful orders. But just as surely, protesters ought to be allowed to use technology to coordinate their public asemblies and displays.


Greetings and welcome to Speech Out of Doors. Let me begin with a brief description of the book that inspired this blog:

Even in an age characterized by increasing virtual presence and communication, speakers still need physical places in which to exercise First Amendment liberties. This book examines the critical intersection of public speech and spatiality. Through a tour of various places on what the author calls the "expressive topography," the book considers a variety of public speech activities including sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics, residential picketing, protesting near funerals, assembling and speaking on college campuses, and participating in public rallies and demonstrations at political conventions and other critical democratic events. This examination of public liberties, or speech out of doors, shows that place can be as important to one's expressive experience as voice, sight, and auditory function. Speakers derive a host of benefits, such as proximity, immediacy, symbolic function, and solidarity, from message placement. Unfortunately, for several decades the ground beneath speakers' feet has been steadily eroding. The causes of this erosion are varied and complex; they include privatization and other loss of public space, legal restrictions on public assembly and expression, methods of policing public speech activity, and general public apathy. To counter these forces and reverse at least some of their effects will require a focused and sustained effort - by public officials, courts, and of course, the people themselves.

Despite the proliferation of communication technologies speech out of doors continues to occur with some frequency in this and other countries. People still gather in public places to make their voices heard. Occasionally, speech out of doors leads to legal reform; very infrequently, it may lead to regime change. Public speech also remains critical to social movements. The thesis of my book is that we are in danger, in the U.S., of losing public space, the critical platform for speech out of doors, owing to regulations, privatization, public planning, technological alternatives, and public attitudes.

Although I will occasionally post items about the book itself (reviews, commentary, etc.), my primary intent is to publicize and analyze issues relating to public speech, assembly, dissent, and contention in traditional public (and quasi-public) places. I remain intensely interested in the current and future prospects for speech out of doors, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. I welcome your readership and invite your comments.

Tim Zick