Sunday, January 31, 2010

Iran Opposition Rally

According to the NYT, opposition leaders in Iran are planning a rally for February 11 -- the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Story here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Presidential Event Exclusions

As I discuss in the book, President George W. Bush's White House Advance Office adopted a policy which called for the exclusion of all dissenters from the President's public appearances.  The Advance Office manual was actually produced in discovery in one of many cases in which protesters challenged denial of access to public presidential events. 

The Tenth Circuit has just upheld the dismissal of a complaint by a couple excluded from a presidential event in 2005.  They were singled out by advance team members because of a bumper sticker on their car which read "No More Blood For Oil."

A two-judge majority ruled that the defendants had not violated any clearly established constitutional right of the plaintiffs, who were not speaking when they were encountered and asked to leave, did not intend to speak at the event, and were at a government event being held on private property. 

Judge Holloway took a very different view in dissent, stating:  "It is simply astounding that any member of the executive branch could have believed that our Constitution justified this egregious violation of Plaintiffs’ rights."


West Bank Protests

Interesting story here from the New York Times about Palestinian protests against a security barrier in the West Bank.  From the story:
For more than a year, this village has been a focus of weekly protests against the Israeli security barrier, which cuts through its lands. Now, the village appears to be at the center of an intensifying Israeli arrest campaign.  Israeli troops and Palestinians from Nabi Saleh scuffled on Jan. 15 as the group tried to reach farmland.  Palestinian women tried to avoid tear gas during clashes with members of the Israeli security forces in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh on Jan. 22.  Apparently concerned that the protests could spread, the Israeli Army and security forces have recently begun clamping down, arresting scores of local organizers and activists here and conducting nighttime raids on the homes of others.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jefferson Memorial Dance Party

From Oberwetter v. Hilliard & Salazar:

On April 12, 2008 -- the eve of Thomas Jefferson's birthday -- Mary Brooke Oberwetter and seventeen of her friends gathered at the Jefferson Memorial to honor the former president, intending to do so through "expressive dance." Oberwetter, however, was stymied when shortly after beginning her celebration, Officer Kenneth Hilliard of the United States Park Police ordered her to stop dancing and leave the Jefferson Memorial. She refused, and asked Officer Hilliard the reason for his command. He did not answer, and instead arrested Oberwetter for demonstrating without a permit and interfering with an agency function.
A First Amendment challege to the arrest and regulations followed.  The result?  You guessed it:  The memorial is a nonpublic forum and the regulation, which is "reasonable" and "viewpoint-neutral," is valid. 

I have no quarrel with the result under doctrine as it now exists.  But this is one of those events that demonstrates the excessive bureacratization of public spaces and the rather pitiful breathing space allowed for anything that strikes authorities as unconventional.  The court concedes that as the permit regulations are written, they would prohibit a professor from delivering a lecture on Jefferson and the Bill of Rights in the same space without permission.    

I wonder what Jefferson himself would think of this particular episode.         

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fifteen-Year-Old Killed in Venezuela Protest

The story is here.  In the United States, we take for granted that acts of protest will not lead to death (although physical injuries may occur as a result of the use of force by police and protesters).  Not so in other countries.  The Iranian protests come very quickly to mind.

Robben Fleming (1916-2010)

Robben W. Fleming, who led the University of Michigan during tumultuous campus protests during the 1960s and 1970s, has died.  The NYT obituary is here.  Fleming seems to have been a level-headed and savvy negotiator of campus protests and grievances.  Here is one example of his leadership style from the obituary:
Mr. Fleming, who led Michigan from 1968 to 1978, was often described as patient and unflappable. Those qualities proved useful in March 1969, when members of the left-wing protest group Students for a Democratic Society, demonstrating against the presence of military personnel on campus, barricaded a Navy recruiter in a room.

Mr. Fleming, an opponent of the Vietnam War, refused to summon police, and the threat passed. But he stood firm against protesters in defending the right of the armed services to recruit at the school.

“The university must always be a world of ideas, often in conflict,” Mr. Fleming said. “It ceases to be a university, however, when a group which is willing to use totalitarian tactics can impose on the rest of us its views.”
And here is another:
In 1970, an activist group called the Black Action Movement, supported by many white students and the S.D.S., which threatened violent protests, demanded that the university increase black enrollment to 10 percent from 3 percent and called a student strike, which lasted 12 days.

Mr. Fleming, who supported affirmative action, negotiated an agreement with student leaders calling for an increase in financing for recruiting qualified black applicants and setting a 10 percent enrollment goal without committing to it as a quota.

Reaction to the settlement was polarized. Some hailed Mr. Fleming for finding a compromise position, but Vice President Spiro T. Agnew called the settlement an appeasement to radicals, “the University of Michigan’s callow retreat from reality.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Repertoires in Domestic Immigration Protests

I posted a while ago regarding the students who plan a walk from Miami to D.C. to protest U.S. immigration policy.  Now, in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, protesters have descended on a Greenwich Village detention center to demand the release of Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrants rights advocate (Mr. Montrevil is actually being held in York County, PA).  According to this NYT story, the protest follows the arrests of 19 people on charges of blocking traffic. 

Immigrantion protest organizers say this is the first time in recent memory that protesters had engegd in acts of civil disobedience.  The repertoires of immigration protests appear to be changing, in response to the absence of meaningful federal immigration reform.  I posted a while ago about the group of illegal resident students who planned a march from Miami to D.C., even though they were subject to arrest and deportation.  Hunger strikes and mass conference calls have also recently been used to draw public attention to immigration reform.  Reform advocates are facing a crowded public policy docket, which includes health care, two wars, and financial reform.  The peaceful mass demonstrations held in the summer of 2006 started a nationwide discussion of immigration reform.  But that discussion has produced little in the way of progress.  Protesters are turning to more unique and in some cases more aggressive repertoires of contention in an effort to draw attention to their cause.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Surveillance and Civil Liberties

There have been several troubling, even shameful  episodes of governmental infiltration and surveillance of protest groups and social movements in U.S. history.  Now comes a new case out of Washington:
In a lawsuit filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, 13 people alleged John J. Towery, a civilian intelligence analyst at Fort Lewis, attended their meetings and demonstrations using a false identity and relayed information about them to law-enforcement authorities, such as Seattle’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Members of Olympia Port Mobilization Resistance — so called because it opposed the Army’s use of civilian ports to ship Stryker vehicles to Iraq — outed Towery last summer, after learning who he was through public-disclosure requests filed with Olympia. They said he had been involved with the group since early 2007 and claimed he confessed when confronted.

“This is important because it’s one of the few times the military has actually been caught spying,” said Larry Hildes, the attorney who brought the case. “It has fundamentally chilled the climate for First Amendment activity in Olympia and Tacoma. It’s caused people to distrust each other, and it’s made it very difficult to organize peaceful demonstrations.”
It is difficult enough to organize public protests.  Hildes's point regarding the effect such infiltration and surveillance may have on public protests and dissent is valid.  Is it a First Amendment violation?  In Laird v. Tatum, which involved Army surveillance of civil rights protesters in Detroit, the Supreme Court held that subjective chill alone is not sufficient to state a First Amendment claim.  Plaintiffs will thus have to show that they suffered some concrete, objective injury as a result of the infiltration (assuming that itself is proven).  It is noteworthy that in  Laird, Army officers attended and reported only on public meetings and events.  Also, officers did not infiltrate the protest groups or engage in any form of unlawful surveillance.  It is not clear, though, that these distinctions are enough to make a constitutional difference. 

Legalities aside, it seems a waste of police and other official resources to focus such energy on peaceful, if disruptive, activists.  This may be a manifestation of our "24" society, in which every protest group is considered a potential terrorist cell.  It is fitting that the military itself may be involved in some capacity; lately it seems the official response to public dissent has been to militarize public policing (recall, for example, the massive surveillance undertaking prior to and during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City).         

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Public Order and Parades -- U.K. Version

According to this story, officials in Luton, a town near London, arrested several Muslims who turned out to protest a parade being given for British soldiers returning from Afghanistan.  The protesters were arrested under public order laws, which prohibit using “threatening, abusive or insulting words” and “behavior likely to cause harassment and distress,” for shouting insults and carrying placards denouncing the soldiers as "bably killers," "rapists," and "murderers."  A trial judge found five of the defendants guilty.  In her ruling, she said:
“I have no doubt it is abusive and insulting to tell soldiers to ‘Go to hell’ — to call soldiers murderers, rapists and baby killers. It is not just insulting to the soldiers but to the citizens of Luton who were out on the streets that day to honor and welcome soldiers home. Citizens of Luton are entitled to demonstrate their support for the troops without experiencing insults and abuse.”
In the United States, these convictions would undoubtedly be overturned.  The First Amendment does not permit officials to protect public audiences from insults and verbal abuse.  Indeed, the Supreme Court has said that speech sometimes serves its highest purposes when it engenders offense.  It is important to note that there was apparently no effort by the Muslim protesters to interfere with the parade, to drown out the parade's message, or to threaten anyone with physical harm. 

The episode calls to mind the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose memers (consisting largely if not entirely of a single family) have protested military funerals in the U.S.  Courts have generally upheld their right to stand on public ways and deliver what can only be described as offensive and abusive messages.  Many are of course appalled by the message -- and the messengers (a jury even found the group liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress -- a verdict later overturned on appeal).  But courts have ruled that the government cannot simply remove these speakers from the public forum, no matter how insulting or upsetting their communications may be.  The message in the Luton case is far less offensive. 

Assuming the decision is upheld, the case highlights one of the comparative differences in speech laws and cultures between the U.S. and the U.K.  We have a different conception of "public order," one that generally protects the freedom to express offensive and insulting messages.  This makes for a more tumultuous public square.  But the alternative, which is to allow the government to sanitize public debate in the interest of protecting psychological sensibilities, is deemed by many to be far more dangerous than the communication of insulting or abusive words.  When in public, the audience is generally obligated to tolerate unpleasant speech.     



Sunday, January 10, 2010

Russian Lawmakers Weigh Criminal Penalties for Blocking Traffic

Blocking traffic has sometimes been a repertoire of last resort for protesters in Russia (and elsewhere). It has sometimes been an effective means of fighting for pensions, back wages, and other benefits.  According to the New York Times:
Until now, blocking traffic has been considered an administrative violation rather than a criminal one, and has seldom been prosecuted. When the government proposed abolishing a range of benefits in 2005, tens of thousands of pensioners took to the streets for a week, blocking some roadways, and Mr. Putin publicly backtracked, making substantial changes in the law. Demonstrators also blocked traffic in Vladivostok late in 2008, protesting the government’s plan to raise tariffs on imported cars.
Now the Russian Parliament is considering making such public contention a criminal offense with very steep penalties.  Some Russian activists see disruption of traffic and economic activity as a last resort.  As one longtime activist put it:
“I am against blocking traffic; I don’t consider it a peaceful method of protest,” said Ms. Alexeyeva, 82, who was arrested on New Year’s Eve when she participated in an unsanctioned demonstration. “But why are they forced to pass such a law? Because all the peaceful methods are prohibited, and this forces people to extremes. You have to understand: when a teapot is boiling and you plug all the holes, you know what will happen.”
The proposed law shows that politicians are losing their patience with public disruption.  But protesters are aware that this sort of disruption is sometimes the only form of contention that gets official and public attention.  Simply put, sometimes protest must be substantially disruptive to be at all effective.  Contrary to the statement of the activist quoted above, I do not see blocking traffick as a violent form of civil disobedience.  It is, of course, a violation of the law.  Protesters may be punished for engaging in this form of contention.  But to criminalize peaceful protest is essentially to chill it, or to repress it entirely should the penalties be too stiff.  If you are protesting lost wages, how likely is it that you will be willing to pay a $3,000-plus fine?  The proposed law appears to be an effort to end a particular type of public demonstration.  For the sake of Russian civil liberties, let us hope it fails in Parliament.    


Repression in Iran

Iran continues its efforts to crack down on dissidents and activists.  According to this NY Times report, five anti-government protesters have been charged with the offense of "warring against God," which carries a mandatory death penalty.  In addition, the report states that a Kurdish activist was recently put to death.  This was the second activist put to death in a month, and several others are currently subject to the same penalty.

Along with orchestrating pro-government rallies, violence against protesters, and public warnings of further crackdowns, these arrests and executions are part of an effort by the state to regain control after the contested June presidential election.  More covert methods, including surveillance and harassment of dissidents, are also undoubtedly being used.  Insofar as protesters are intimidated by these measures, their movement will likely fizzle.  But there is another way to view Iran's repressive actions.  The state seems weakened and on the defensive.  This is one circumstance in which protest movements often take root and thrive.  The question, as always, is whether protesters will have the courage and resolve to continue to challenge the state publicly.     

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Commercial Speech on Campuses

Connecticut has become the latest state to limit solicitations by credit card companies and other financial institutions on public university campuses.  (Congress has imposed similar marketing restrictions on credit card companies, which are to take effect in February.)  Places of higher learning are subject to many of the same speech restrictions that apply outside campus gates.  A large campus order speech bureaucracy has developed since the 1970s.  Connecticut's law, which is similar to those in 15 other states, aims to make it more difficult for credit card companies to reach students on campus and limits the manner of solicitation.  The rationale for the limits appears to be that students are particularly susceptible to making bad credit decisions as a result of clever marketing ploys such as free giveaways.  According to one supporter of the new limits:  "You should not get a credit card because you were attracted by a free gift as you were walking across the student campus mall. Taking on credit debt is a major decision, not something you should do on the spur of the moment because you want a soda.”

Common-sense limits on credit card marketing on campuses make some sense.  But if one reads between the lines of these laws and the administrative policies on many campuses, the intent seems to be to ban certain types of commercial advertising on campus. 

Although Connecticut’s new law sets limits on soliciting on campus, universities can still go a step further by prohibiting banks and other lenders from marketing on campus altogether.

“A bank can’t come to you and say, ‘I’ve met these regulations and you must let me on campus,’” Michael Meotti, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Higher Education, told his department’s board of governors.

The University of Connecticut, for instance, enacted its own rules for credit-card marketing on campus that restrict the activity to the Student Union and requires marketers to let students accept giveaways without forcing them to participate in the promotion.

Students must also be allowed to “self-select” if they want to approach a marketer’s table without those representatives calling out to the students or using other aggressive techniques, UConn spokesman Michael Kirk said.
Some of these restrictions would likely violate the First Amendment if imposed in other types of public places.  Students ought not to be shielded from credit card pitches on campus.  Perhaps if they learned of the perils of such pitches earlier in life, future generations might become more savvy debt consumers.  In any event, campus administrators should take care not to violate their students' right to receive legal marketing information and to decide for themselves whether to apply for credit.   

Monday, January 4, 2010

New York's New Public Advocate -- You Can Fight City Hall After All (And He'll Help You)

The previous post mentioned how some regimes organize pro-government protests in response to grass roots public demonstrations.  According to this report in the New York Times, Bill de Blasio, New York City's new public advocate intends, among other things, "to train aggrieved residents to organize petition drives, demonstrations and civic actions against City Hall."   For those not familiar with the public advocate post, it is a city-wide elected position intended to serve as a watchdog for New Yorkers.  The position has been somewhat dormant of late.  But de Blasio intends to change that, in part by focusing on community organizing.

The idea that a government official intends to help organize demonstrations against the government is an odd one indeed.  Civic-minded activists would seem better motivated and equipped to facilitate public protests against government offices and officials.  Then again, some constituencies could apparentlt use the organizational help.  As the Times reports, it is not clear that protest assistance is what constituents really want from their government.  They generally want their problems solved.  So it's not clear there will be much demand for the service de Blasio intends to offer. 

Although it's an odd use of public resources, some part of me applauds the initiative.  One would not think New Yorkers, with all their swagger, would need help getting their voices heard or fighting City Hall.  Then again, "Mike" Bloomberg just attended his third mayoral coronation after reversing (with the help of a compliant City Council) a term limits law that limited mayors to two terms.  Bloomberg has expressed an intention to listen more this term.  Here's hoping that de Blasio's demonstrations will give him an earful.     

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pro-Government Protests in Iran

Authorities organized pro-government protests in an effort to counter the mass protests against Iran's leaders in the past several weeks.  This is a relatively common tactic in authoritarian regimes.  For example, China sometimes organizes anti-Tibet protests to counter the "free Tibet" movement.  Pro-government rallies imply false majorities; they are an effort to propagandize in the face of mass demonstrations against rulers.  Once their organizational apparatus becomes known, it is not likely that such demonstrations are terribly convincing to any audience, foreign or domestic.

Trail of Dreams

A small group of Latino immigrants are set to embark on a four-month march from Miami to Washington, D.C. to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.  The group's leaders, who are children of illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents, have been inspired by migrant farm worker marches of the 1970s and the civil rights protest marches of the 1960s. 

In the summer of 2006, immigrants flooded into the streets across the U.S. to demonstrate in favor of reform and a path to citizenship for those here illegally.  Those demonstrations sparked a national conversation and caught the attention, at least for a brief time, of legislators in D.C.  Large marches are problematic at this point, in part owing to stepped-up detentions and deportations by federal immigration officials.  The marchers are at risk of deportation themselves.  Nevertheless, they feel that a public march is necessary to draw greater attention to the plight of illegal immigrants in the U.S.