Monday, December 20, 2010

CUNY's Culture of Protest

This article from the N.Y. Times highlights some of the challenges student protesters face today, from increased campus security to harsher penalties for various forms of civil disobedience on campus.  The author compares the relatively modest student response at CUNY to tuition increases to the recent protests in the U.K. regarding rising education fees.  The students at CUNY have tried public contention in years past.  They've now apparently moved on to forms of protest they think might be more effective -- specifically, legal process.  In a sense, this simply represents the steady institutionalization of protest.  What began "in the streets" ends up in negotiations with administrators and, when all else fails, in the courts.  I have seen too many examples, some quite recent, of robust student protest to conclude that the campus protest is a thing of the past.  There are still idealistic students on the nation's campuses.  But for a variety of reasons, some of which are examined in the piece, campus protests are not as a general matter likely to be as frequent or as effective as they used to be. 

This is an important change in the nation's expressive culture.  Whatever one might think of the efficacy or desirability of protests as a general matter, we ought to be concerned that a generation of students may be learning the lesson that public contention is a dangerous and wholly ineffectual form of expression.  If during these formative years students do not learn to test the bounds of authority, through various means, when if ever will they learn to do so?    

Monday, December 6, 2010


I posted something earlier about the austerity protests in Britain and France.  As this article shows, my and others' sense that the British would simply accept social welfare cuts with a "stiff upper lip" failed to consider the student population.  British students have indeed taken to the streets in considerable numbers to protest rising tuition and education cuts.  Police officers have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the protesters.  In some cases, they have herded the students into pens.  This strategy of containment has been referred to as "kettling," a term I had not heard before.  Students have responded to kettling by engaging in less centralized assemblies, and by using social networks to evade police spatial tactics.     

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Arresting Reporters at Demonstrations

Here is some very cogent commentary on this issue, from the First Amendment Center.  When authorities militarize public places during protests and demonstrations, they tend to cast a wide net.  Reporters and other law-abiding people are sometimes swept into those nets.  Some of the examples cited in the commentary involve the recent protest at Fort Benning, which is discussed below.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fort Benning Protest

The N.Y. Times published this interesting article today, about the annual demonstration at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.  Protesters have been gathering there for years to protest the training of Latin American military officers at the school of the Americas, which is affiliated with the Department of Defense.  The article reports on the dwindling number of protesters, and some possible reasons for the decrease in activity.  These include the bad economy, the apathy of young people, and the school's own efforts to engage the public and to draw attention away from the instruction they are providing.  Also among the likely reasons for the decline:  A more aggressive police response to protesters, and the imposition of jail terms for some of those who trespassed on the base.  Recently, a small group of protesters tried to draw attention to their cause by demonstrating in the public streets.  They were  arrested, as were several other protesters who apparently failed to follow police instructions following a parade.  The Fort Benning story highlights many of the challenges faced by modern protesters.  Only some of these relate to protest policing.  What was perhaps most surprising to me was the longevity of the Fort Benning demonstrations.  Public contention of this sort requires no small commitment, and some traveled long distances to be a part of this event.                   

Saturday, November 20, 2010

LA Street Performers Get A Reprieve

As reported here, Batman, Zorro, and other characters remain free to perform on Hollywood Blvd.  Police had increased patrols and arrests, apparently in reponse to complaints of aggressive panhandling and other behavior by some of the performers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Residential Picketing and True Threats

As this report indicates, North Carolina authorities have charged an abortion protester with violating a new state law against targeted residential picketing. The Supreme Court upheld a residential picketing ordinance that prohibited the targeting picketing of a residence.  In this case, the protesters distributed "Wanted" posters in the neighborhoods of abortion providers.  The state has characterized this as stalking and threatening conduct.  In the "Nuremberg Files" case, the Ninth Circuit upheld a civil verdict against abortion protesters for posting similar posters to the Web.  In that case, the appearance of "Wanted" posters had been followed by the murders of abortion providers.  The Ninth Circuit held that the posters constituted "true threats," which are unprotected speech.  It will be interesting to see whether the North Carolina targeted picketing statute, as applied to the abortion protesters, withstands scrutiny under the First Amendment.    

Street Preacher Victory

As reported here, a man who took to the streets of Greenville, SC to preach against homosexuality has won his case on appeal.  The South Carolina Supreme Court found that a portion of the ordinance under which the preacher was arrested, which prohibited making comments that are "humiliating, offensive, scary or obscene," is unconstitutionally vague. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Moscow Protest as Microcosm

This story in the N.Y. Times, which reports on a small public protest in Moscow, demonstrates both the importance of public contention to speakers and the threat such assemblies can pose to authorities.  The right of assembly is guaranteed in the Russian constitution.  But this is a mere parchment guarantee.  Protesters are routinely arrested and dealt with harshly by authorities: 

In the past year, Russia’s leaders have been forced to discuss this group of protesters regularly. In an interview with the newspaper Kommersant in August, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said that if they gathered without sanction, “They will be bashed on the head with a club,” and that a softer government position would only embolden them. 
“If the objective is forcing concessions on the powers that be, and if the powers that be do buckle under, then provocations will be endless,” he said. “They will be staged again and again.”
But times may be changing. At least so long as the protests remain relatively small and non-violent, the authorities may be willing to permit some public contention:

But in mid-October, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy director of the presidential administration, said he saw little threat in allowing the event, remarking that the regular confrontations had become “a sort of burlesque.”

“If in Moscow, a city of many millions, 200 people want to gather exactly on the 31st, exactly on Triumphal Square, in these modest numbers, let them gather,” he said in an interview. “I am sure the new mayor will make the right decision. And it will be a decision in the spirit of the president’s policies.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

The French, the British, and Public Contention

Here is an interesting piece from the N.Y. Times comparing the response of French and British citizens to austerity measures in those countries.  Not surprisingly, the French have taken to the streets more regularly and in greater numbers than the British.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Certiorari Denial in 2005 Bumper Sticker Ejection Case

Over three dissents, the Supreme Court has denied cert. in a case involving the ejection of two people from a 2005 public event featuring George W. Bush.  The ejection was apparently based solely on the subject matter of the bumper sticker on their car.  The N.Y. Times has the story.  The central legal issue in the case is whether the officials who ejected the two are entitled to qualified immunity on the ground that no "clearly established" principle of First Amendment law was violated.   

Monday, October 4, 2010

Viewpoint-Based Exclusion from Non-Exclusive Event

Eugene Volokh has this interesting post on a case involving the exclusion of certain students from a non-exclusive Maria Cantwell event on the campus of Bellevue University.  The basic principle is that once the university opened a non-exclusive forum for speech, it could not then exclude certain students based upon their anti-Cantwell viewpoint.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The First National Pilgrimage to D.C.

The Sunday New York Times has a brief but interesting piece on the first national march on Washington, in 1894.  The article notes that the protesters were arrested for stepping on the Capitol grass -- a charge the author notes would be "preposterous" today.  Maybe not.  Concerns about aesthtics have led to proposals to limit protests on the Mall as well as actual limits in places like Central Park.  To be sure, protests are still allowed in such places.  But in some cases courts and officials have preferenced blades of grass over actual protesters.  The piece notes how little has actually changed over time with respect to national pilgrimages to D.C. 

Here is an excerpt:

Marching in 2010 and marching in 1894 are, of course, two different experiences.

On May 1, 1894, Coxey and somewhere between 500 and 1,000 marchers rambled along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Thousands lined the streets to watch. These days, the only people who watch for any length of time are reporters and cops.

And yet, Coxey’s march foreshadowed many of the same logistical and tactical issues that today’s protest organizers face. Even Coxey’s message points to those of modern marches. One of the platforms of the rally in Washington on Saturday, which was sponsored by liberal groups, called for increased infrastructure spending to create jobs.

Newspapers covered virtually every step of Coxey’s journey from Ohio to Washington. Mr. Coxey and his aides stressed their Christian roots, while reporters described them as tramps and cranks. Politicians and the press seemed to have one primary concern: How many will march? Organizers today continue to be frustrated that their larger message gets lost amid the focus on crowd size, and Coxey was perhaps the first march leader to use a wildly optimistic number — he predicted 10,000 to 500,000 demonstrators — to generate publicity.

Liberal Groups Rally on the National Mall

Story here.  There have been proposals for more monuments and for confining protests on the Mall to some sort of protest zone.  I think the recent gatherings on the Mall demonstrate the wisdom of keeping the Mall open to large-scale political and other demonstrations.  The assemblies may not change minds, policies or electoral results.  But they offer an opportunity for people to assemble in solidarity for large causes and to express hope, frustration, faith, and preferences.      

Monday, September 27, 2010

Surveillance of Activists -- Reprise

I noted in an earlier post that a recently published FBI report essentially exonerates agency personnel of charges that they targeted protesters for surveillance based upon political advocacy.  This potentially disturbing (and related) story shows how federal laws limiting the provision of "material support" to terrorists and terrorist organizations may be used against domestic anti-war and other acativists.  A taste from the story:

FBI agents in Chicago took a laptop and documents from the home of a Palestinian-American anti-war activist in an attempt to silence his advocacy, an attorney said yesterday.

The FBI on Sept. 24 searched eight addresses in Minneapolis and Chicago, including the home of Hatem Abudayyeh, who is the executive director of the Arab American Action Network, attorney Jim Fennerty told the Associated Press.

“The government’s trying to quiet activists,” Fennerty said. “This case is really scary.”

More than half a dozen agents went to Abudayyeh’s home on Sept. 24 and took any documents containing the word “Palestine,” Fennerty said.


Another Rally on the National Mall

No, not by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.  It's a coalition of liberal and progressive groups who hope to communicate a message of solidarity rather than division in times of economic distress -- and to make the case that they, rather than teh Tea Party, are the "real" embattled middle class.  The rally is called "One Nation Working Together."  It is scheduled for October 2.  The N.Y. Times has the story here

Student Immigration Protests

Here is an interesting repertoire of public protest, in support of an immigration bill that would open a path to legal status for students unlawfully in the U.S.

FBI Report on Domestic Surveillance of Protest Groups

As reported by the N.Y. Times, an FBI report has cleared agents and officials of targeting anti-war and other protesters for surveillance based upon their political advocacy.  Still, the report "criticized the F.B.I. for classifying certain nonviolent crimes related to protest activities as terrorism. And it sharply attacked the bureau for making a series of 'false and misleading statements to the public and to Congress” about its surveillance of an antiwar protest on Nov. 29, 2002.'"  In addition, the report "criticized several episodes in which it characterized F.B.I. agents as opening or continuing investigations despite scant evidence of a federal crime."  It also "criticized classifying some nonviolent protest-related actions, like trespassing on a military base, as 'terrorism” matters.'"    

U.N. Rallies

Here is a report from the N.Y. Times on recent rallies held near the United Nations.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

G20 Summit Protest Lawsuit

According to this report, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit alleging that police violated the civil rights of protesters at the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh.  Such lawsuits are commonly filed after large-scale protest events.  In many cases, municipalities have paid substantial settlements.  From the story:

The ACLU announced the lawsuit, Armstrong v. City of Pittsburgh, at a plaza near the University of Pittsburgh campus where the protest was staged on Sept. 25, 2009.

"When people see video of peaceful demonstrations in places like Russia and Iran where the police all of a sudden declare the assembly to be unlawful and then come in and arrest everybody ... we recoil in horror and say, 'It's just free speech, it's just peaceful demonstrations. Thank goodness that can't and doesn't happen in this country,'" Walczak [ACLU legal director in Pennsylvania] said.

"Well, I'm sorry to advise you that in fact it does happen in this country and it did happen in the city of Pittsburgh."


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Stewart and Colbert Rallies

Here is a story about John Stewart's proposed "rally for sanity" and Colbert's planned "counter-demonstration" to "keep fear alive."  I'm not sure how I feel about mocking public rallies and demonstrations (although it's not entirely clear this is the intention).  But it is true that those who tend to protest in public often represent small, deeply engaged segments of the public.  I wonder, all joking aside, whether a large crowd of busy, less energized folks will turn out for a rally on the Mall.  For fans of Stewart and Colbert, anything seems possible . . .

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Anti-Quran-Burning Protests Planned

Story here.  Apparently, local officials have denied a Florida pastor a permit to have a Koran bonfire on church property.  But as the story notes, smaller fires may be permitted.  Officials cannot stop the planned burning on the ground that it might offend others, either in the U.S. or abroad.  It does not appear that Pastor Jones intends to threaten others by engaging in this expressive conduct.  The act of burning does not constitute "fighting words."  And the pastor does not appear to have the intent to incite others to commit violent acts -- although they may well be the effect of his speech.  Federal officials, including Defense Secretary Gates and President Obama, have spoken out against the proposed Quran burning.  Government officials can certaintly seek to dissuade a citizen from speaking.  But they cannot punish or threaten to punish him for doing so.  The best response to this hateful speech is not to punish the speaker, but to rely upon counter-speech advocating tolerance for religious beliefs and respect for religious texts and symbols.    

Friday, August 27, 2010

Empire State Building Protest

While New Yorkers have been drawn into an increasingly vehement debate over an Islamic center and mosque planned near ground zero, another religious squabble has been simmering. And on Thursday, that battle will culminate at the Empire State Building.

There, protesters are planning to rally against a decision by the building’s owners not to light the upper floors in blue and white on Thursday night in honor of the 100th birthday of Mother Teresa.

The Police Department and the rally’s organizers, preparing for several thousand demonstrators, are planning to shut down 34th Street between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, where the main entrance to the building is located, at the peak of the evening rush, between 6 and 7:30 p.m.

The N.Y. Times has more here and here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Face-Off Over the "Ground Zero Mosque"

As the N.Y. Times recently reported, NYPD was out in force and pens were erected to hold and separate demonstrators for and against the construction of an Islamic center blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.  But as the story notes, a few of the penned managed to get up close and personal with counter-demonstrators -- with what may be a surprising result.       

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Semi-Nude Animal Rights Demonstration (Spain)

As reported here, the protest is to take place today in front of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.  A larger demonstration is scheduled to take place in front of the bull ring.  Animal rights activists are hoping to garner support for banning bullfighting in other regions of the country, on the heels of the ban enacted in Catalonia. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Protesting the Expendable Governor -- At His Other Workplace

The N.Y. Times has the story here.

Funeral Protest Law Invalidated

A federal judge in Missouri has invalidated provisions of a state law that limited demonstrations near funeral processions and ceremonies.  Story here:

The primary state law had barred protests near any church, cemetery or funeral establishment from an hour before until an hour after any funeral ceremony, procession or memorial service. The secondary measure specifically stated protesters must stay back at least 300 feet from ceremonies and processions. Both provisions levied the same penalty: up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense and up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders.

Gaitan concluded Missouri officials did not demonstrate the protest restrictions served a significant government interest nor that they had been narrowly tailored to prevent the harm of interruptions of funeral services. The judge wrote he was sympathetic to the argument that people attending a funeral deserve some protection, but he noted that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had already rejected that argument.
The case is Phelps-Roper v. Koster.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Chinese Labor Unrest

This story chronicles the difficulties Chinese laborers have had in organizing demonstrations to protest state company layoffs.  Public contention in urban areas is dealth with quickly and effectively by authorities, and carries a significant risk of imprisonment. 

Border Protest

The N.Y. Times has this story on a demonstration in the Arizona desert.  The demonstrators were protesting what they regard as  "lax" immigration enforcement at the border.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pamphleteering for Peace

I think this story highlights why it remains important that pamphleteers and others who seek access to audiences' personal or embodied spaces be permitted such access.  I don't think that the speakers in the story, who sought to distribute brochures concerning a Muslim sect that preaches non-violence, would have reached their intended audience (Wisonsin fairgoers) on the Web.  This exchange struck me as eminently reasonable and respectful -- in other words, just the sort of dialogue that can unfortunately be quite rare in blog comment sections:

Mr. Rashid continued his efforts beside the carousel, where a local man named William Krumnow responded to the brochure with the question, “How come we can have mosques here, but when you come to the Middle East, you can’t put churches up?”

Rather than go into the factual reality — though Saudi Arabia has such restrictions, many Middle Eastern nations have had churches for centuries — Mr. Rashid solicitously explained that the Koran teaches Muslims to protect Christians and Jews as kindred monotheists.

“If that’s what you guys are believing in,” Mr. Krumnow, who is Lutheran, responded, “then why are things happening the way they are?”

Again, Mr. Rashid listened closely, shutting out the squeals of children and the cries of barkers. “Every religion has its extremists,” he said, “and in Islam, we’ve let our extremists speak too loudly. That’s why we’re here. So you can hear our voice.”
I'm sure that not all of the public exchanges were this cordial.  But the message here was far more difficult to avoid than it is in cyberspace.  And if delivered properly, it might cause at least a few people to second-guess their perceptions and prejudices regarding Islam and its relation to terrorism.        

Friday, August 6, 2010

National Park Permit Regulations Invalidated

In Boardley v. U.S. Department of the Interior, the D.C. Circuit invalidated National Park Service regulations requiring that small groups and even individual speakers obtain a permit before speaking or assembling in national parks.  The regulations at issue required that speakers communicate and assemble only within certain "free speech areas" in the parks.  The court held that these areas were designated public forums.  With regard to the permit requirement, the court held that it was not narrowly tailored to serve the government's interests in safety and order and did not leave open ample alternative channels of communication.  The court was particularly concerned that the permit requirements applied to even small groups and individuals, appeared to render spontaneous speech and assembly impossible, and failed to preserve any opportunity for communicating messages anonymously. 

With regard to the breadth of the regulations, the court wrote (slip op. at 25; citations omitted):

The NPS regulations target much more than necessary. If a Girl Scouts leader musters her scouts onto a pavilion in a “free speech area” of Glacier National Park and proceeds to lecture them about the effects of global warming, she will have conducted both a “meeting” and a “gathering”(perhaps also an “assembly”) for which a permit would have been required. An elementary school teacher who leads eight students on an excursion to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument and, within a “free speech area,” shows off her best imitation of a traditional Navajo dance presumably has hosted an unlawful “demonstration.” If a believer in Creationism visits the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and, within a “free speech area,” quietly hands out literature disputing the theory of evolution, he is guilty of “distribut[ing] . . . printed matter” without a permit.  Under a plain reading of the NPS regulations, all of this speech is banned unless a permit is first acquired, even though none of it remotely threatens any of the government’s interests. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Unregulated Protest -- Mexico City

The N.Y. Times has this interesting story about the costs and benefits of unregulated street protests in Mexico City.  On the cost side, the protests are highly disruptive.  On the benefits side, the right to demonstrate in public appears to be firmly entrenched -- and, for the most part, respected by authorities.  There is, of course, a middle ground between completely unregulated public protest and oppressive regulation or suppression of public contention.  The U.S. tries, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to navigate that middle ground according to well established First Amendment principles. 

Here is an excerpt from the story:

Since the city does not regulate protests, demonstrators are free to block traffic whenever they please. In just the first three months of this year, there were 740 street demonstrations, an average of about eight and a half a day — an improvement over last year, when there were more than nine a day, the city government points out.

“In our country, it is a constitutional right to demonstrate,” said Juan José García Ochoa, the leftist city government’s point man for protests. “What we can do is to mediate, so that we guarantee the right to demonstrate along with the right of free movement.”

The daily marches may appear to be a sign of a vibrant democracy, proof of a wealth of ideals and opportunities to express them. But they also obey the choreographed rules of engagement laid down during 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI.

“For many years, the political system was very closed, but it was not authoritarian,” Mr. García Ochoa said. “During 70 years of the PRI, they let you demonstrate as long as you didn’t threaten their hold on power.”

It has been a decade since opposition parties broke the PRI’s political monopoly, but the idea that the best way to get the authorities’ attention is to stop traffic remains embedded in Mexico’s political culture.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Places of Higher Learning and Order Management

As I discuss in Chapter 8 of my book, college campuses are generally subject to the same sort of order management system that applies outside their gates.  The campus order management system includes sometimes detailed requirements for permits, insurance, security fees, and free speech zoning.  Several such provisions are in effect on the campus of Southeastern Louisiana University.

Yesterday, in Sonnier v. Crane, the Fifth Circuit reversed district court's denial of a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the provision allowing administrators to charge a security fee if they felt this was warranted.  That sort of unbridled discretion with respect to fees has been invalidated by the Supreme Court, making this determination an easy one.  Plaintiff is a Christian preacher who sought to stand in a pedestrian mall on SLU’s campus along with a handful of friends, holding a sign, and tried to start conversations about religion with individuals who passed by.

Despite this partial victory, the Court upheld a 7-day notice requirement, a provision allowing officials to collect detailed personal information about prospective speakers, a provision limiting speakers to two hours once a week, and a free speech zone policy limiting speech to three areas on campus.  Essentially, the court deferred to the university with regard to its needs to pursue its educational missions, maintain order, and ensure safety on campus.  The requirements applicable outside the campus gates have now entered; but the rigor applied to them inside is much less, at least in this case, than one would find on the outside.  The 7-day advance notice requirement is particularly problematic.  If enforced, it would seem to prevent students from mounting spontaneous displays.   

Phelps-Roper Nebraska Settlement

Shirley Phelps-Roper, of Westboro Baptist Church notoriety (the group that protests near military funerals, among other things) has received a $17,000 settlement from an Omaha suburb in connection with a challenge to the town's scheme for granting permits for public expression.  The Phelps-Ropers have been successful in challenging other limits on public contention, including flag desecration laws and laws regulating their funeral protests. 

Most notably, they  have a First Amendment challenge pending before the Supreme Court relating to the imposition of civil tort liability in connection with one of their funeral protests.  I joined an amicus brief filed with the Court in which several academics urged the Court not to let the verdict stand.  In brief, the impositon of liability for "extreme and outrageous" speech (the standard under the intentional infliction of emotional distress tort) poses serious dangers to speech in public places, including on college campuses and in traditional public forums like parks and streets.  We urge the Court to at the very least impose First Amendment limitations on the imposition of such liability.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mosque Protest

I suspect we will see an increase in public contention surrounding the siting and building of mosques in the U.S.  Here is one example of a peaceful demonstration and counter-demonstration relating to this issue.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Feeding the Homeless in Public

The Eleventh Circuit has upheld an ordinance that tightly restricts the act of assembling in city parks to feed the homeless.  The case is First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando.

The Orlando ordinance was challenged on both religious free exercise and free speech grounds.  Under the Free Speech Clause, symbolic conduct is covered where the actor has an intent to convey a message and an audience is reasonably likely to understand that a message is being conveyed.  The message does not have to be clear, articulate, or even coherent.  As the court said, “in determining whether conduct is expressive, we ask whether the reasonable person would interpret it as some sort of message, not whether an observer would necessarily infer a specific message.” Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1270 (11th Cir. 2004). "This inquiry is an objective one."

The court concluded that feeding the homeless in the public parks did not satisfy this standard:
We accept that [plaintiffs] had the requisite expressive intent, but we believe that the feedings in this case present at most an ambiguous situation to an objective reasonable observer; the expressive nature of the conduct is not “overwhelmingly apparent.” We therefore cannot conclude that the likelihood is great that a reasonable observer would understand OFNB’s conduct of simply feeding people to be truly communicative.
There was some evidence in the record that police, the mayor, and others recognized that the church was feeding the homeless at least in part to make a political point -- i.e., that society has an obligation to feed its homeless and hungry.  Moreover, the Supreme Court has (albeit sometimes grudingly) accepted that a wide variety of conduct "counts" as expressive -- including flag burning, cross burning, stripping, and sleeping overnight on the National Mall.  While it is true that there must be limits to the principle that conduct may be perceived and treated as expressive activity, under the circumstances it seems a reasonable observer could well have discerned a political, social and religious message.  Although the court did not hold that feeding the homeless in public could never be deemed expressive, the tenor and holding of its decision create an important precedent for limiting public feeding as a form of political demonstration.    

By the way, the court's limited notion of what "counts" as expressive conduct stands in contrast to and in tension with the courts' increasing willingness to accept that "government speech" is present in public forums even when it is far from clear that a reasonable observer would perceive some "overwhelmingly apparent" message.  The display of a Ten Commandments monument (along with other works) in a municipal park comes to mind.  (See Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2010).  Is the government speaker required to make the same showing as a private speaker that its message is (a) intended and (b) likely to be understood by a reasonable observer?  

Friday, July 9, 2010

Spying on University Activists

Infiltration of protest groups is nothing new.  But this story concerning University of Washington police officers conducting covert surveillance of student activists struck me as unusual.  From the story:
The school's Student Worker Coalition first learned that it had been infiltrated in April, when members saw one of the group's new adherents at her day job — as a uniformed University of Washington policewoman. At the time, the group had been planning a campus demonstration in support of custodial workers facing the prospect of having their night shift cut.
The ACLU of Washington released e-mails obtained through public-records requests that also showed that the officer, Tani Van Leuven, actively participated in an April 8 meeting and secretly monitored a meeting at a cafe a week earlier.
Protesters do not get very far under the First Amendment by arguing that surveillance of public events chills their free speech and assembly rights.  The Supreme Court rejected that  argument in Laird v. Tatum (1972).  Nevertheless, spying on college students who are engaged in planning a protest event is inconsistent with the commitment to free debate that most universities espouse.  As I point out in the book, elements of protest policing outside campus gates have steadily crept inside these unique spaces.  It's troubling that this tactic has now appeared on campus, where students may be particularly susceptible to intimidation by police.  University of Washington officials ought to condemn and strongly discourage this sort of spying on students.  


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Panhandling Ban at LAX Upheld

The Ninth Circuit has issued a decision lifting an injunction barring enforcement of a panhandling ban at Los Angeles International Airport.  The decision, ISKCON v. Los Angeles, is based on an interpretation of California law by the California Supreme Court.  That court held that regardless of whether LAX is a public forum, the panhandling ban is a reasonable time, place and manner regulation.  That holding is consistent with Supreme Court precedents that limit face-to-face requests for funding in public places, but allow distribution of literature and other activities that do not carry the same purported risk of fraud.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

USNWR Opinion Piece on Snyder v. Phelps

U.S. News & World Report Weekly has published my brief opinion piece on the Synder v. Phelps "funeral protest" case.  You can access the piece here.  The feature is called "Two Takes."  I argue that the tort liability imposed on the Phelps family for protesting near the private funeral of a soldier is inconsistent with the First Amendment.  Walter Dellinger, former acting Solicitor General, argues that the protesters have no First Amendment right to "hijack" a private funeral.

Friday, July 2, 2010

May Day Compensation

As reported here, Los Angeles has agreed to pay $500,000 to six journalists who were injured in the melee at MacArthur Park during the May Day celebration in 2007. That amount is a drop in the bucket compared to the total compensation paid as a result of police misconduct.  As the story reports:
The city paid out $13 million to settle nine lawsuits involving nearly 300 people after the rally at MacArthur Park. Police dispersed crowds by beating people with batons and firing beanbag rounds and rubber bullets. Forty-two people were injured.
There were plenty of cameras on hand to capture events.  (Here is one video.)  It was astounding to watch police march into peaceful crowds firing rubber bullets and engaging in other violent acts.  After-event reports by the City of Los Angeles and the LAPD conceded that there had been several errors, including a lack of officer training and the resort to physical violence to control the crowds.         

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New York City Art Vendor Rules

Largely in response to objections for local artists, New York City officials have scaled back plans to limit the number of art vendors in public parks.  From a N.Y. Times report:
Officials of the Department of Parks and Recreation had originally sought to cut the number of vendors to 81 to improve pedestrian flow. But after the proposal drew the anger of professional artists, many of whom depend on selling art as a livelihood, the city agreed to cut the number less drastically, to as many as 140.
The city’s new plan will allow 19 additional vendors in Central Park, and it will open up locations near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an often-crowded passageway for tourists.

In Union Square, one of the most congested islands of greenery in the city, the equivalent of an artists’ market will appear three times a week. An additional 40 artists will be allowed to set up shop on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, in the space used by the Greenmarket, the park’s farmers’ market.  The spaces will be awarded first come first served. There is no formal permitting; instead, artists simply line up each day to try to get a space.
The amended rules are certainly an improvement.  But they will still limit expression in the parks, and will likely not please many vendors. 

As far as the First Amendment is concerned, the amended proposal appears to have been drafted with a constitutional challenge in mind.  The rules do not distinguish among various types of art, operate on a first-come basis, and are designed to be tailored to address the purproted pedestrian traffic and public order concerns expressed by the city.  The city also maintains that artists now have ample alternative channels for displaying and selling their works.  This sort of content-neutral restriction on public expression generally withstands constitutional scrutiny under the First Amendment.  Even in traditional public forums like parks, officials have fairly broad discretion to impose content-neutral time, place and manner regulations on speech.  For example, New York City successfully defended limits on the number of protesters allowed in portions of Central Park on the ground that large numbers of people could damage the park's lawn.

Hands Across the Sand

Here is a report regarding another form of public contention in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf.  Note the combination of social networking technologies and physical displays:
In all, mainly through connections made through Facebook, 820 events were scheduled in all 50 states and in 34 countries. Thousands of people worldwide stood hand in hand — with some, here in South Beach at least, breaking the chain only for surfers or topless women — to protest drilling and to demand cleaner energy sources.

The G20 in Toronto

As reported in the N.Y. Times, more than 20,000 officers were deployed during the recent G20 summit in Toronto.  Ater the police apparently allowed small groups of violent protesters to engage in acts of vandalism, they stepped up their efforts and arrested more than 600 people.  Toronto has followed the typical pattern of "militarizing" the places surrounding the summit meetings.  Militarization includes surveillance activities, protest zoning, suspension of civil liberties near contested venues, use of physical force and chemical irritants, and deployment of large police forces.  Under such conditions, protests become difficult if not impossible to conduct.  Peaceful protesters and members of the press are often swept into the police dragnet.  (I discuss the militarization of public places during critical democratic moments in Chapter 7 of Speech Out of Doors.)

Civil liberties groups have objected to the policing of the G20 event.  From the Times report:
“Civil liberties are in rough shape today,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, the general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which had two of its observers arrested and detained. “We will have to have some accountability for what is going on.”

In a statement, the Canadian branch of Amnesty International called on governments to review the security measures made for the meeting, including a temporary suspension of various civil liberties in the portion of this city’s downtown near the meeting site.
One difference between Toronto and other venues is that public officials appear to have been more honest and transparent regarding the costs of all of the security measures.  The costs are estimated to total in excess of $1 billion. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Day Laborers and Free Speech

Efforts to regulate the activities of day laborers, who solicit work in public places, have raised some interesting equal protection and free speech issues.  Efforts to displace day laborers lie at the intersection of free speech and immigration concerns. 

The Ninth Circuit has just upheld a Redondo Beach, California ordinance that limits such solicitation.  In a 60-page decision, the court held that Redondo Beach Municipal Code § 3-7.1601, which prohibits the act of standing on a street or highway and soliciting employment, business, or contributions from the occupants of an automobile, is a valid time, place and manner regulation.

The court concluded that solicitation, which in this case consisted of leaving a public sidewalk to approach a car stopped on a public street, was expressive.  However, it held that the ordinance was content-neutral and deferred to the city's stated interests in ensuring the flow of traffic and public safety.   The court also concluded that the ordinance was narrowly tailored and left open ample and adequate alternative channels of communication because it "permits persons to solicit 'business,employment, or contributions' from people on sidewalks or in similar public forums within Redondo Beach, so long as the act does not take place when the target of the solicitation is actually driving in the street."

Judge Warlaw dissented on the ground that the Redondo Beach ordinance was an overbroad restriction on expressive activity in a traditional public forum.  The opinion offers a strong defense of the act of solicitation and the traditional public forum.  Judge Wardlaw concluded: 
The majority tramples upon the right of free speech in the most traditional of public fora. It erroneously relies upon precedent involving an as-applied challenge to the constitutionality of an aspirationally similar statute and contorts the actual words of the Redondo Beach Ordinance beyond recognition. The district court got it right: The Redondo Beach Ordinance is an unconstitutional regulation of speech; it is not narrowly tailored to meet Redondo Beach’s asserted governmental interests; and it fails to leave open alternative avenues for the
day laborers’ expression.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Brooklyn Public Library Read-In

This interesting N.Y. Times story reports that some librarians in Brooklyn are not taking proposed city budget cuts lying down.  They held a 24-hour "read-in" to protest the cuts. 

As this Supreme Court case from 1966 demonstrates, public libraries were integral "contested" places during the civil rights era.  Then it was black protesters challenging segregationist policies at public facilities.  Today it is the librarians themselves who are protesting, and fighting to keep their facilities open to the public at large.

2004 NYC Surveillance Documents Can Be Kept Secret

According to this report in the N.Y. Times, the Second Circuit has held that New York City may keep secret about 1,800 pages of "Field Reports" relating to surveillance conducted by officers in NYC and across the globe prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC.  A large group of plaintiffs who were detained and held overnight at the convention after they allegedly held peaceful protests are pursuing a civil rights action against the city.  The plaintiffs allege that they were arrested and detained without proper cause.  The city contends that the threat level at the convention was high, and that its mass arrest policy was justified. 

Covert surveillance has become part of the militarized environment preceding critical democratic moments such as national party conventions.  Some "Action Reports" filed by police during surveillance had previsously been released during litigation.  Those reports indicated that officers were conducting surveillance on peaceful protest groups, including those who intended to engage in peaceful vigils, marches, and poetry readings during the conventions.  About 600 pages of "End User Reports" have also been disclosed, which the city says justify its conclusion that the convention was a possible terrorist target.  The latest discovery battle involves the Field Reports, which apparently detail covert surveillance activities by NYPD leading up to an during the convention. 

In its opinion, the Second Circuit held that the Field Reports are protected under the law enforcement privilege.  It concluded that plaintiffs had not demonstrated a compelling need for the documents, largely in light of their possession of the End User Reports, and that disclosure could harm law enforcement operations at future public events.  The case will proceed to trial.     

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sidewalk Leafletting

According to this report, a federal court has ruled that a Dearborn group has no First Amendment right to roam about the sidewalks near an Arab-American festival to distribute literature about Christianity.  Instead, the court held that would-be pamphleteer could be confined to a booth space within the festival grounds.  The plaintiff sued, in part, because he claimed that festival-goers would not be likely to stop at the assigned booth.  I gave a radio interview some time ago regarding this case.  Along with a few other law professors, I also expressed some early thoughts on the case in this report

Bans on leafetting in traditional public forums (indeed in any type of forum) are generally deemed unconstitutional.  The fact that such a ban will help maintain public order, as the Dearborn authorities appear to allege, does not suffice to make what is essentially a medium ban constitutional.  While it is true that the First Amendment does not guarantee the speaker the best location or means of expression, it is also the case that a speaker cannot be denied a right to speak in a traditional public forum on the ground that he may speak in some other place -- in this case from inside a booth.  Like other "free speech zones," the booth appears to preserve the speaker's right to communicate in public.  But the speaker's audience in this case is not going to be a willing one; hence the need to use the public sidewalks for what will likely be unwanted and in some cases perhaps unpleasant encounters.  (I am assuming, of course, that the sidewalks remained "public" in this case -- i.e., that they were not part of any private permitted event.)   

Thursday, June 3, 2010

BP Stations as Contested Places

As reported here, protesters have begun to appear at retail BP gas stations in response to the Gulf oil spill.  As the article suggests, the protests are not likely to have a large impact on the consumption of gasoline at BP outlets.  Similar efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill were largely ineffective.  However, the public gatherings and protests will serve as a tangible reminder to the public of the ongoing catastrophe.  

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Snyder v. Phelps -- Petitioner's Brief

The petitioner's brief has been filed in Snyder v. Phelps.  Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh has a number of informative posts on the merits of the intentional infliction and privacy claims.  According to Mr. Phelps, the Fourth Circuit's principal error was to give "absolute immunity" to a category of hyperbole that does not make factual claims about the target of the speech.  The brief also relies heavily on the "captive audience" principle, noting that the Court has applied the doctrine outside the context of the home -- most notably in the abortion clinic protest context.

Not surprisingly, petitioner's brief barely acknowledges that the speakers were lawfully in a public place when they engaged in their offensive protest of the Snyder funeral.  For me that is a key factor.  One almost gets the impression  from the brief that the speech occurred inside the cemetery or church grounds (although the brief does finally mention that the Phelps's were 200-300 feet from the church). 

If the jury's verdict is upheld, public protesters may well be chilled from communicating in a manner that the target audience (and the jury) may find "extreme and outrageous."  It is true that Mr. Snyder is a private citizen and did not seek the publicity the Phelps's brought to his son's funeral.  It is also the case that their speech is highly offensive not only to the Synders but to any reasonable person who might view or hear it.  However, to extend the captive audience and privacy doctrines to what is, in essence, a street protest would be a very dangerous precedent.  Unfortnately the Supreme Court started down this path in the abortion clinic protest cases, where it balanced the protesters' interests against the public privacy and tranquility interests of the target audience.  As reprehensible as the speech in this case may be, upholding  million-dollar tort judgments based solely upon public speech activities would be a substantial blow to public protests and to free speech more generally. 

One cannot help but have some sympathy for the Snyders and their plea for respect during their time of mourning.  However, to create a category of "extreme and outrageous" speech that is subject to civil liability would give too much power to juries to regulate speech based on its offensive content.  The same is true for the intrustion upon seclusion claim, which in this case stems almost solely from the speech of the Phelps family rather than any conduct interfering with a recognized privacy interest.  The bottom line, for me, is that regulating public speech and contention of this sort should be accomplished under properly drawn content-neutral time, place and manner laws.  So long as they are in compliance with such laws, even the most offensive speakers are entitled to convey their messages in public.   

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bangkok -- The Aftermath

As reported in the N.Y. Times:

Two months of tension and violence ended with a whimper on Thursday as the last exhausted group of protesters filed out of a Buddhist temple where they had taken refuge, bewildered and frightened, some in tears.

Bangkok Is Tense as Order Returns (May 21, 2010) As they shuffled past a smear of blood on the ground that told of the recent fighting, a line of female police officers in black berets comforted them, touching their shoulders and murmuring: “Don’t be afraid. You’re safe now. Have a safe journey home.”

But it felt, on this morning after a political convulsion unlike anything anyone here has seen, that Thailand’s future was anything but safe.

“It was tragic,” said Anusart Suwanmongkol, a senator who supports the government. “Yesterday was the most tragic day in my memory, in Thai history. Nobody gained anything. Nobody won. The country lost.”

The clashes on Wednesday, along with four years of acrimonious political combat, have exposed rifts and resentments in Thailand that have smoldered under a surface of smiles and a virtue the Thais call “cool heart.”

The country’s divisions and enmities have only deepened. Nothing has been resolved. The battle for power between social classes and between the politicians who manipulate them continues.


Puerto Rico Campus Protests

As reported by the N.Y. Times, students have effectively halted the academic calendar on several Puerto Rico campuses through sit-ins, strikes, and occupations. The protests, which have apparently been going on for months, are intended to convey students' objections to certain austerity measures that they say will disparately affect low-income students.  Students are also demanding more transparency in university financing.  Students in California staged similar, although less disruptive, protests on several campuses in response to proposed cuts in state financing for higher education.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sit-In at Senator McCain's Tucson Office

As the N.Y. Times reported, five undocumented immigrants dressed in caps and gowns staged a sit-in at the Tucson office of Senator John McCain:

Four of the protesters, including three who are in the country illegally, were arrested Monday evening on misdemeanor trespassing charges. The three were expected to face deportation proceedings.

It was the first time students have directly risked deportation in an effort to prompt Congress to take up a bill that would benefit illegal immigrant youths.
Senator McCain had once been a supporter of comprehensive immigration legislation that provided a path to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally.  That was before he became embroiled in a very tough primary battle.

Government Moves on Thai Red Shirts

As the protests dragged on and the talks fizzled, it was inevitable that the Thai government would move more agressively to end the stalemate.  According to this report in the N.Y. Times, the military has broken through the protesters' barricade in the commercial center of Bangkok. 

The government has shown rather remarkable restraint up to this point.  Still, many have been killed and injured.  As well, the protests have had a substantial economic impact on the local economy.  Businesses have been closed for weeks and the tourism industry has taken a major hit.  Perhaps the protesters should have accepted the deal offered a week or so ago that would have shortened the time frame for parliamentary elections.  One wonders what they will have to show for their efforts once the crackdown is complete.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Violence in Bangkok

The proposed settlement did not hold together.  As reported here, protesters and police clashed after a renegade general who was working with the protesters was shot in the head.  The clashes are now in their third day, and according to reports have claimed at least 24 lives with more than 170 reported injured.  The Thai government, which thus far has generally exercised restraint, has vowed to take a more aggressive posture.  However, aggressive action against the protesters, who began their demonstration two months ago, is not yet a certainty:

Despite the worries that violence would escalate, the government has powerful reasons to show restraint. Officials have held back for weeks for fear of causing a bloodbath — further tarnishing Thailand’s reputation as a business and tourist-friendly country — or of inciting unrest in other parts of the country sympathetic to the protesters.

Rather than forcing a showdown, the military could instead choose to continue to try to divide the demonstrators, hoping that more moderate members will leave the area as they run out of food and water. Over the last several days, the military has set up checkpoints on roads leading to the protesters’ encampment, keeping supporters with new supplies out and checking the identity of anyone trying to enter the area.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Egypt's "Emergency Law"

As reported in the N.Y. Times, the Egyptian Parliament has just extended country's emergency law, which gives authorities broad authority to arrest and detain people and to limit free speech and assembly.  Protesters allege that the law has been used to suppress dissent.  They question the purported terrorism-related rationale for the extension:

In an unusual case of public outreach by Egypt’s normally tight-lipped leaders, the government took pains to explain its decision and announced that the emergency law — in place continuously since President Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated in 1981 — would be used only in cases of terrorism and drug trafficking. Officials also said that some provisions of the law would be dropped.

But the concept of terrorism is so broad in Egyptian law and the language in the new measure so malleable, that the government decision was immediately criticized by human rights groups, political activists and independent human rights monitors, who say they expect little to change in a nation that routinely uses the heavy hand of the police and prisons to silence political opposition.
One might think of public space militarization as a matter of degree.  Egypt's emergency law, which is a kind of martial law-light, stands somewhere between Iran's escalated violence and executions and the surveillance and spatial tactics used in the U.S.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thai Protest Resolution (?)

The N.Y. Times is reporting that anti-government protesters in Bangkok have accepted a deal that will result in new elections in November.  Some protesters have criticized the deal and may not walk away.  However, this seems as if it will resolve the public contest, which has resulted in 27 deaths and over 1,000 injuries.    

Update (5/12):  The N.Y. Times reports that the deal may not hold after all.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Grannies

This story in the N.Y. Times describes the ongoing protest on New York's Fifth Avenue by mostly elderly grandmothers of America's wars abroad.  A few years ago, a small group of grandmothers affiliated with the "Granny Peace Brigade" was arrested and charged with blocking access to an armed forces recruting center in Times Square.  The judge, who seemed embarrassed to be presiding over the proceedings, acquitted the grannies.

Why do they stay out there, rain or shine, in a seemingly futile effort?  These comments summed it up nicely:

“The point is to interfere with the routine,” Ms. Heinz said. “As people walk down the street, it has an impact on their consciousness. If it engages them, it’s fine. If it infuriates them, it’s fine.”

Mr. Aubrey invoked Dylan Thomas’s admonition to not go gentle into that good night. “ ‘Rage, rage,’ ” he said. “That’s the way I feel. I have to do something.” Next to him stood James Marsh, 73 — a “granduncle for peace.” He said, “I don’t want to say at the end of my life that I didn’t stand up for peace and justice.”

Another protester, Laurie Arbeiter, invoked words ascribed to the Rev. A. J. Muste, a prominent pacifist who died in 1967. During the Vietnam War, he was asked at a candlelight vigil outside the White House if he truly felt that such actions would alter national policy. “I don’t do this to change the country,” he said. “I do this so the country won’t change me.”


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Harvey Milk's Bullhorn

As reported in the New York Times, Harvey Milk's bullhorn, which was used to rally protesters in favor of gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s, has become a contested artifact.  From the story:

Of late, however, the bullhorn has been at the center of another type of dispute, one that pits its caretaker, Cleve Jones, a veteran organizer, against an elementary school that bears Mr. Milk’s name, and has some gay activists howling that Mr. Jones has absconded with a piece of their history.

For most of the last decade, the bullhorn — a Fanon Transistorized Megaphone, Model 8S-C — was locked in a dusty display cabinet at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, an alternative K-5 elementary school in the Castro neighborhood. It also did a recent star turn, however, playing itself in the 2008 film “Milk.”
Now, Mr. Jones, who was given the bullhorn by Mr. Milk shortly before he was murdered in 1978, says he is not so sure that the school is the right home for it, worrying aloud about its safety, its treatment and its relative obscurity in the school stairwell.

Greek Protests Turn Deadly

As reported here, three people were killed when the austerity-related protests in Greece took a violent turn.  Anarchists are being blamed for the violence. 

In mass demonstrations llike this, it is not uncommon for fringe elements to hijack peaceful contention.  This poses a substantial challenge to protest organizers and participants.  The violent turn obviously alters the public narrative.  Reporters will now focus on the casualties rather than the public discontent with proposed employment and social service cuts.  Public support and tolerance for continued protests may decline, as people view the gatherings more as mobs than legitimate assemblies.    

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Kent State

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Kent State shootings, a pivotal event in the Vietnam antiwar protest movement.  At least according to this story, the significance of the events of May 4, 1970 may be largely lost on today's college freshmen:    

Fourteen of 15 freshmen interviewed on the campus said they did not feel any connection with the lives of the students who were protesting the United States’ invasion of Cambodia at the time.

The university requires first-year students to watch a historical video of what happened that day and the events leading to it: the violent confrontation between protesters and local police and the burning of the R.O.T.C. building near the Commons.

Freshmen attribute their lack of interest to the time span.

“Our generation doesn’t necessarily really care because it happened so long ago none of us were alive,” said Ethan Moore, a freshman majoring in nursing. “Though it definitely shouldn’t be forgotten because they were people, too.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Public Contention Around the World

Lots of protests and demonstrations in the news:

In Bangkok, protesters stormed a hospital looking for soldiers;

In Iran, authorities appear to have repressed a public demonstration by intimidating possible participants;

In Greece, protesters took to the streets to rally against proposed austerity measures;

And here in the U.S., thousands rallied against Arizona's new immigration law and in favor of a comprehensive federal immigration law.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Egyptian Labor Protests

According to this report, Egyptian workers have been protesting low wages and the absence of jobs since February.  The government has generally been more tolerant of labor protests than political demonstrations.  There is apparently some concern on the part of officials that the labor action will be transformed into a political movement.  From the story:

Using an emergency law that allows arrest without charge and restricts the ability to organize, the Egyptian government and the ruling National Democratic Party have for decades blocked development of an effective opposition while monopolizing the levers of power. The open question — one that analysts say the government fears — is whether the workers will connect their economic woes with virtual one-party rule and organize into a political force.
According to this report on Egypt's labor movement, "7 million workers engaged in 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest” from 2004 through 2008.  That, some say, is the largest social movement in Egypt in more than 50 years.  Like Thai officials, Egyptian officials have been relatively tolerant of the street protests thus far.  If and when they become politicized, look for stronger action from the government. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Social Networking and Public Protests

Social networking media can be an effective way to organize mass protests.  This was first demonstrated in the U.S. during the 1999 World Trade Organization Protests in Seattle.  Social networking technologies have facilitated mass protests in repressive regimes across the globe, including those in Iran last summer. 

This event in New Jersey may be the first instance in which students used Facebook to organize a mass walkout.  More than 18,000 students responded to a Facebook post calling for a demonstration to protest proposed state budget cuts for education.  Social networking does not always replace traditional public contention -- sometimes, as in this instance, it assists in organizing and publicizing it.   

Monday, April 26, 2010

Protesting Arizona's New Immigration Law

Here is a brief story and some photos of yesterday's protest at the state capitol.  Protests are being scheduled across the country for May 1.  Four years ago  immigrants took to the streets in mass numbers to protest a federal immigration bill.  The Arizona measure appears to be engendering a similar level of passion.   

Recording Public Demonstrations

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a civil action challenging the enforcement of a federal regulation governing photography and videotaping near federal buildings.  Here are the first two paragraphs of the complaint:
1. This is a civil rights action to vindicate the constitutional right of New Yorkers and others to take photographs or video in outdoor areas that are open to the public andthat are near federal' courthouses, office buildings, and other federal property. ThePlaintiff Antonio Musumeci was arrested in November 2009 while videotaping a political protest in a public plaza outside of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. Mr. Musumeci was charged with violating a vague federal regulation that restricts photography and that appears to be inconsistently enforced.

2. This regulation is unconstitutional to the extent that it in fact regulates noncommercial photography in outdoor areas -- like sidewalks and plazas -- to which the public has unrestricted access. To the extent it does not regulate such activity, federal law-enforcement officials are improperly using the regulation as an excuse to arrest and harass law-abiding photographers.
If the allegations in the Complaint are true, plaintiff was arrested for photographing political activity near a federal courthouse -- but while located on a public plaza outdoors.  Federal officials do not appear to be enforcing the regulation in question, which is described in the complaint, consistently.  For example, photography is permitted on the plaza in front of the Supreme Court building.  It's also not so clear that a regulation can effectively transform a public way into a non-public forum.  In United States v. Grace (1983), the  Court rejected the argument that Congress could simply designate sidewalks near the Supreme Court non-public forums and thereby effectively prohibit speech in such areas.

Recent incidents involving the Critical Mass bike rides and other public demonstrations have shown that having video or photographic evidence of the event can be critical to later determining whether civil rights have been violated. It is also important that photographers and others be able to document public dissent when it occurs. 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Violence in Bangkok

As expected, events have turned more violent as rival groups of demonstrators continue to face off in the streets, under the watchful eye of the military.  According to a report from the N.Y. Times:

Five grenades exploded in the heart of Bangkok’s business district on Thursday evening, killing at least one person and wounding 75 as rival groups of protesters demonstrated and shouted insults at one another across a makeshift barricade.

Explosions in Bangkok Wound DozensThe explosions, several of which took place on the platform of an elevated train, scattered shrapnel through crowds that included foreign tourists, sending people fleeing in panic into shops and restaurants.

The attacks threatened to ignite wider violence after more than six weeks of protests that seek to bring down the government and force a new election.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, speaking on television, blamed the antigovernment protesters known as the red shirts, who have paralyzed parts of Bangkok. He said that rocket-propelled grenades had been fired from within an area the red shirts occupied. Although he said three people had been killed, the government’s Erawan Medical Center confirmed only one death.

More on the Proposed New York City Vendor Rules

As one might expect, frustrated artists turned to artistic expression to oppose the proposed rules for limiting the sale of art and other items in certain city parks.  Story here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Klan Permit Denial

Here is a report of an odd case from Missouri involving the denial of permit for a KKK gathering by the Department of Natural Resources.  According to the report:

Frank Ancona, imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, filed a lawsuit seeking an emergency order to overrule the Department of Natural Resources’ rejection of his application to rent a pavilion at the Fort Davidson Historic Site in southeast Missouri.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel in St. Louis issued a temporary restraining order last week against the DNR decision.

But Sippel said the group had to follow DNR rules, one of which requires $2 million in liability insurance for special events, according to DNR spokesman Judd Slivka.

The Klan group wasn’t able to come up with the required insurance by the date of the event, scheduled for April 17, Ancona said. Instead, the group held its picnic on private property about 40 miles away, he said.

Ancona said his group intends to seek another permit for a similar gathering at the site.

When the DNR originally denied the Klan group’s permit request on March 23, the DNR cited the group’s desire to have a Confederate flag flying at the historic site and to present information claiming the Confederate flag had been removed from the state historic site.

The DNR said in a letter to the ACLU that the Confederate battle flag was never flown at the site.

The DNR also said the flag depicted on the Klan group’s flier was an Army of Northern Virginia unit flag.

“These and other historical inaccuracies render the proposed public event inconsistent with the historical mission and purpose of the Fort Davidson State Historic Site,” the DNR letter said.
The ACLU, which is representing the Klan, says this is a clear-cut case of viewpoint discrimination.  The "historical inaccuracies" argument seems like a sham.  In addition, it appears the DNR sought to classify the proposed gathering a "special event," thus activating the $2 million liability insurance requirement.   The Klan claims the event is a barbecue, not a public rally.  Liability insurance requirements, which are relatively common, can make it difficult to have a demonstration.  Depending on the local market, insurance policies for public demonstrations can be difficult to procure and somewhat expensive.  In many localities, this is merely one of the numerous requirements groups must meet in order to have a public gathering.

Should the case proceed, I wonder if the DNR will try to argue that the pavilion expresses a governmental message of some sort.  In the recent Summum case, the Supreme Court concluded that municipal parks often convey government messages, thus entitling local governments to selectively accept monuments for permanent placement.  The DNR seems to be arguing that it has a similar power to protect the pavilion's "message."  

Monday, April 19, 2010

Counter-Demonstrations in Bangkok

As reported here, pro-government demonstrators  have now taken to the streets to demand that the government restore order and to clash with the Red Shirts, who have occupied a central commerical district for weeks. The counter-demonstrators supporting the government are made up in part of Yellow Shirts, who played an instrumental  role in bringing the current government to power.  Like our "blue" and "red" parties, the colors signify different social and political circumstances and outlooks:   
 The reds and the yellows embody what seem to be irreconcilable sides in the country’s deep-running social and political divisions. While the red shirts are mostly drawn from the country’s rural and urban poor, the yellow shirts support a royalist bureaucratic and business elite that has held sway for generations.
Not surprisingly, those aligned with the business elite have had enough of the commercial disruption in Bangkok.  Meanwhile, by all accounts the Red Shirts  remain defiant.  There is now an explosive mix of red, yellow, and military factions in the streets of Bangkok.  It seems that the death toll is very likely to increase before any resolution is reached.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Botched Raid on Thai Protest Leaders

As reported here, Thai security forces engaged in a botched raid on a hotel where several protest leaders were housed.  The Prime Minister has now transferred full responsibility for dealing with protesters to the military.  Given that protesters' ocupation of a major commercial center in Bangkok is affecting the tourism sector and the larger Thai economy, I would not be surprised to see far more aggressive tactics by the military in the coming days and weeks.

New York City and Street Vendors

As reported here, New York City is considering new rules to limit the number of vendors in public parks.  Efforts to control the streets and sidewalks are nothing new in NYC, of course.  Vendors seem to have multiplied outside museums and in parks like Union Square Park, perhaps in part as a result of the sour economy.   

There are serious First Amendment issues lurking in this latest effort to regulate NYC's public spaces.  The proposed rules would substantially reduce the number of verndors in some spaces -- perhaps by as much as 75%.  At Prawfsblawg, Bill Araiza raises some interesting questions in this post regarding the proposed rules' focus on expressive vendors (versus commercial and other vendors). 

This recent op-ed in the N.Y. Times by Edward Wallace, a former City Council member, sets out the larger stakes raised by the proposed regulations.  Wallace correctly notes that the rules for use of public space must balance the rights of speakers and those of the public who wish to use the same spaces.  Public spaces must generally be available for a multitude of public uses.  Vendors cannot be allowed, for example, to block entrances or monopolize certain spaces.  I agree with much of what Wallace writes.  But his op-ed goes too far in equalizing the rights of speakers and bench-sitters.  According to Wallace:
In truth, the First Amendment protects the right of all the people to use our public spaces. The right to sit quietly on a bench is as fully protected as the right to declaim at a speaker’s corner. Sometimes the government may appear to be the opponent of free assembly and free expression, but the new park regulations protect the rights of the majority of park users while standing up for the rights of the individual art vendor.

The reason the First Amendment grants an exalted status to public parks and sidewalks is that they have been used time out of mind for public discussion and debate.  "The right to sit quietly on a bench," if meant to suggest some right of tranquil use free from disturbing vendors, is not "as fully protected" as a speaker's right to use public forum spaces.  I hope officials will keep the preferred position of expressive uses in mind when drafting and approving the new rules.  Commerce has already consumed a good portion of what once were expressive public spaces.  By all means, require that the benches be shared.  But we can ill afford further diminishment of opportunities for pamphleteers and other speech vendors in public forums.             


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Thai Protesters Revel, the Government Reels and the Army Wavers"

In this case, the title says it all.  The protesters would appear to have won.  What they've won, however, is not yet clear.  The Prime Minister has not resigned.  The ruling party has not been disbanded (allthough it finds itself in some administrative peril).  And protesters do not appear to have a governing party or plan firmly in place.  Once the celebration ends, the Red Shirts will need to do the hard work of forming a government and a plan of action.  And they will have to work very hard indeed to avoid the fate of the Yellow Shirts.  Remember them? 

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kyrgyzstan and Whom to "Root For"

Eugene Volokh asks, with respect to the recent protests in Kyrgyzstan, "whom in blazes am I suppos[ed] to be rooting for?"  I don't know enough about the merits of the incoming and departing governments to answer on the merits.  However, I'll confess (not surprisngly given my work on public expression) to a bias in favor of protesters in most cases.  Public protest is a messy and, in many countries (including our own) sometimes dangerous activity.  Given the inherent risks involved, I can't help but applaud the recent street demonstrations in places like Kyrgyzstan, Iran, and Thailand.  If public contention in these and other instances looks like an act of desperation, that's because it is often precisely that.  What is truly remarkable is that public demonstrations are sometimes successful means of forcing elections or removing a ruling party.

I don't want to romanticize public protest.  There are elements in every crowd that are bent on destruction rather than reform.  The violence that often accompanies public protests is regrettable.  As well, the opposition may not be of purer motive than the ruling party it seeks to displace.  In more mature democracies like the U.S., we may look upon these protests as unruly mobs.  But we forget our own history in doing so.  Our revolutions and populist uprisings have hardly been free of violence.  We can and should hope for more peaceful means of transferring power in countries like Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, and Iran.  Until that day comes, though, I think I'll root for the protesters.             

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thai Protests Continue

According to this report Thai protesters have stormed Parliament, causing ministers to flee by helicopter.  The Prime Minister has declared a state of emergency, which authorizes authorities to ban public gatherings of more than five people and suspend certain civil liberties.  Still, police did not appear to be using force against the Red Shirts.  Out of self-preservation motives and to ensure that the situation does not become worse, the government has shown considerable restraint during the weeks-long protests.

UPDATE (4/10):  This report indicates that military forces pushed back against the protesters, but ultimately avoided a full-scale confrontation.

UPDATE II (4/11):  And this report indicates that things have taken a violent turn, with 18 dead and more than 650 wounded.  It appears that protesters went on the offensive and that the military was then forced to respond.  Soldiers were eventually ordered to retreat.  It is not clear where negotiations between the Red Shirts and the Prime Minister stand.  The protesters continue to demand his ouster, and the Prime Minister continues to offer only earlier elections.  The mostly successful clashes with soldiers will likely embolden the protesters.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Protests

The NY Times reports that opposition protesters have toppled the government in Kyrgyzstan.  More than 40 people were killed and at least 350 were injured in clashes with police.  According to the report:

Riot police officers fired rounds of live ammunition into angry crowds of demonstrators who gathered around government buildings to rally against what they termed the government’s brutality and corruption, as well as a recent decision to increase utility rates sharply. Witnesses said that the police seemed to panic, and that there was no sign of supervision. In several cases, demonstrators wrested their weapons away from them.

By early Thursday morning, opposition officials occupied many government buildings in Bishkek, and were demanding that the president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, sign a formal letter of resignation. Mr. Bakiyev has issued no public remarks since the protests began, and it was unclear whether he was still in the country after he left the capital on the presidential plane.
A short video of the protest is here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Burton Joseph (1930-2010)

Burton Joseph, who defended demonstrators arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and helped persuade the ACLU to defend the Nazis who infamously sought a permit to march through Skokie, Illinois, has died.  The New York Times obituary is here.

Thai Protests

The protests in Thailand continue.  This piece from the New York Times makes two interesting observations.  The first is the apparent shedding of a "culture of restraint" in Thai society:

The Thailand of today is not quite the France of 1789 — there is no history of major tensions between rich and poor here, and most of the country is peaceful despite the noisy protests. But more than ever Thailand’s underprivileged are less inclined to quietly accept their station in life as past generations did and are voicing anger about wide disparities in wealth, about shakedowns by the police and what they see as the longstanding condescension in Bangkok toward people who speak provincial dialects, especially from the northeast.

The deference, gentility and graciousness that have helped anchor the social hierarchy in Thailand for centuries are fraying, analysts say, as poorer Thais become more assertive, discarding long-held taboos that discouraged confrontation.
The other interesting observation relates, again, to the role of technology:

The role of technology in bringing together the protesters has been crucial. The leaders of the protest movement have used community radio stations, mobile-phone messaging and the Internet to forge an identity for lower-income Thais and connect a vast constellation of people in villages and towns.

At times the protests in Bangkok could be described as flash mobs of the disaffected. Protesters, who wear trademark red shirts, have converged on government buildings, banks and military bases across the city guided by text messages.
As reported here, protesters have escalated their disruptive tactics by blocking a substantial area near the police headquarters in Bangkok.  The question remains how long the police will tolerate the disruption before cracking down.  Authorities have shown more restraint than usual in this confrontation, presumably in the hope that the protests would dwindle.

UPDATE:  More coverage from the New York Times here.

FURTHER UPDATE (4/6):  Here.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Snyder v. Phelps

I gave a press interview for this story in Stars and Stripes about Snyder v. Phelps, the funeral protest case pending before the Supreme Court.  The article doesn't address the legal issue before the court -- whether the First Amendment limits imposing tort liability for the protest activities at issue. 

The speech at issue cannot be regulated on any theory that it falls within an illegal content category (threats, incitements, etc.).  Nor is the issue whether the government can regulate the speech because it's offensive (it can't), or because those in the funeral procession are "captive audiences" (they aren't -- indeed in the Snyder case the plaintiff did not see the Westboro protesters on the day of the funeral).  The Supreme Court likely took the case to clarify whether the First Amendment limits the imposition of tort liability where the plaintiff is not a public figure but the speech arguably pertains to a matter of public concern (assuming the speech at issue does pertain to a matter of public concern and not solely to the Snyders' son or the Synders themselves).