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).