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The Liberalization of Free Speech: Or, How Protest in Public Space is Silenced

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         The Geography of Speech
         Changing Geographies of Protest
         Conclusion: The Liberalization of Free Speech




To be silenced is to be kept from being heard. My goal in this essay is to explore how such a silencing - such a keeping from being heard - is accomplished not in the name of the outright suppression of speech, but in the name of its liberalization. In American public spaces, I will argue, the contemporary silencing of dissenting speech is more and more accomplished through a language, and an accompanying set of regulations, that purportedly serves to protect the very rights that are being suppressed. My point is that the line between regulation and suppression is a thin and increasingly faint one, and it is a line that is both drawn and continually crossed through the development and implementation of a liberal theory of speech rights in the US. The regulation/suppression dialectic relies less and less on what is said (this is speech's liberalization) than where it is said. Silencing is a function of geography. And free speech law in the US is increasingly geographically astute.

To develop such an argument it is helpful to return to an episode in the history of outright suppression, because by doing so we can begin to glimpse how a narrow focus - either by civil libertarians seeking to promote free speech, or others seeking to limit it - on what is said, is insufficient. On Saturday, February 2, 2002, William Epton died of cancer.1 Epton was a leftist agitator who in 1964 became the first person since 1920 to be convicted under New York's criminal anarchy law. He was convicted of both conspiracy to commit the crime of advocating criminal anarchy and of actually advocating criminal anarchy.2 It may also be the case that Epton was the one of the last persons convicted in the US for outright revolutionary political speech.3 As an organizer for the Progressive Labor Party in Harlem, Epton made a series of street-corner speeches at the time of a riot in 1964, saying in one of them (as recorded by an undercover police officer who had infiltrated the Harlem chapter of the party):

If we are going to be free, and we will not be fully free until we smash this state completely and totally. Destroy and set up a new state of our own choosing and our own liking. And in the process of making that state, we're going to have to kill a lot of these cops a lot of these judges, and we'll have to go against their army. We'll organize our own militia and our own army…4

The Appeals Court upheld Epton's conviction, arguing that:

There is no doubt that Epton intended to inflame the already intense passions of the troubled people of Harlem and to incite them to greater violence. Furthermore, defendant's exhortations calling for organized resistance to the police and the destruction of the State, in the setting of Harlem during the week of July 18th,5 formed a sufficient basis for the trial court and jury to conclude that his words and actions created a 'clear and present danger' that the riots then rocking Harlem would be intensified or, if they subsided, rekindled.6

The last phrase in the previous sentence is important, because the trial court had found a "lack of evidence as to any direct, causal connection between Epton's activities and the Harlem riots of the Summer of 1964."7 That is to say, there was no evidence of a connection between what Epton said and what happened in Harlem, especially since Epton made most of his speeches after the riot had subsided. The Supreme Court, on this and other occasions, refused to consider the legitimacy of New York's criminal anarchy law on the grounds that this was a state rather than a federal matter.

But, of course, the Supreme Court had considered New York's law before - in the 1920s in the famous Gitlow case.8 Then, the Court upheld the conviction of the radical Benjamin Gitlow after Gitlow had published a tract called The Left-Wing Manifesto, during the height of the Palmer Raids in 1919. Oliver Wendell Holmes (joined by Louis Brandeis) wrote a famous dissent in the Gitlow case, arguing that Gitlow's pamphlet in no way presented a "clear and present danger" to the state and, therefore, Gitlow's conviction under New York's criminal anarchy law should be overtuned.9 The majority in this case, however, upheld Gitlow's conviction and in the process affirmed both the constitutionality of the New York law, and the State's right to police some forms of speech. Assuming, first, that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment covered the liberties outlined in the First Amendment, the Court, second, argued that "the freedom of speech and of the press which is secured by the Constitution, does not confer an absolute right to speak or publish, without responsibility, whatever one may choose…."10 Further, the Court held, "That a State in the exercise of its police power may punish those who abuse this freedom by utterances inimical to the public welfare, tending to corrupt public morals, incite crime, or disturb the peace, is not open to question."11 Finally, "a State may punish utterances endangering the foundations of organized government and threatening its overthrow by unlawful means." 12

On much of this Holmes did not disagree. His dissent in Gitlow was based in earlier decisions and dissents he had written for the Court in the wake of World War 1.13 These earlier cases,14 established the standards for the right that many now consider the foundation of contemporary American liberty: the right to free speech. Or more accurately, at the end of World War I, the Supreme Court, with Justice Holmes taking the lead, began to develop the language that allowed for the regulation of speech such that it could be protected as an ingredient necessary to the development and the strength of the state. It began to find a way to limit speech, rather than to outlaw it altogether. If the majority in Gitlow had not yet come around to this view, later Courts did, finding in Holmes's decisions the language necessary to begin the project of liberalizing free speech in the U.S.15 This liberalization was predicated on a seeing at the heart of speech a separation - in space and time - between what is said and the effects of utterances. This is the very basis of Holmes's "clear and present danger" test.16

Each of the defendants in these cases was convicted for making speeches (or publishing pamphlets) that were deemed to have the possibility of being effective and therefore to portend violence or to undermine the legitimate interests of the state. Each conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court. The irony of free speech jurisprudence in the US, therefore, is that its liberalization is grounded in its repression. This conclusion is doubly obvious, and doubly interesting, when the content of the four convictions is remembered. The prominent socialist Eugene Debs was convicted for merely praising draft resisters for their moral courage.17 Charles Schenck, an official of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia, was convicted for calling the draft a form of involuntary servitude outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment, and recommending that men petition the government to object to the draft law.18 Frohwerk, the editor of a small circulation German-language newspaper, was convicted for writing that the US had no chance of defeating Germany in the war and thus draftees who refused to enlist could not be faulted.19 And Abrams, along with four fellow Russian radicals, was convicted for throwing leaflets out of a New York window protesting US intervention in Russia following its revolution. 20

Holmes first laid out his language concerning "clear and present danger" in the Schenck case.21 "The question in every case," Holmes intoned, "is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree."22 He also said a few other things that bear repeating, especially now: "When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in a time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and no Court could regard them as protected by any Constitutional right."23 However, Holmes clarified:

We admit that in many places and in ordinary times, the defendants … would have been within their constitutional rights. But the character of the act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done…. The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words that may have all the effect of force.24

So, even when not at war, the government may strongly circumscribe speech.

There are two issues that are crucial here to the construction of a fully liberal theory of free speech. The first is that what makes a difference in the nature of speech is where that speech occurs. There would be nothing wrong, presumably, with falsely shouting fire, even in a time of war, in the middle of the wilderness, or even on a busy street, if there is adequate room to move. The trick for speech regulation, therefore, becomes - and became for the Court - one of spatial regulation. Regulation of location, or place, becomes the surrogate for the regulation of content.25 The second crucial point Holmes makes is to distinguish between the content of speech and the possibility that such speech might have an effect.26 My purpose in the remainder of this essay is to examine the intersection of these two issues to show how contemporary speech laws and policing effectively silence dissident speech in the name of its promotion and regulation. As the Court has moved away from a regime that penalizes what is said - in essence liberalizing free speech - it has simultaneously created a means to severely regulate where things may be said, and it has done so, in my estimation, in a way that more effectively silences speech than did the older regime of censorship and repression.

It could be argued - to put all this another way - that the death of William Epton received the attention it did precisely because the way his speech was policed seems so anachronistic now. It certainly seems a heavy-handed means of silencing opposition. It seems illiberal. A more liberal approach to silencing opposition - to keeping it from being heard - is to let geography, more than censorship, do the silencing. And this is the direction American law is tending. In what follows I will make my argument clear first through a historical geography of First Amendment law and the evolution of the public forum doctrine, and then by looking at three case studies that show how regulating the where of speech effectively silences protest. The implication of my argument is that under the speech regime currently being constructed in the United States, dissident speech can only be effective when it is illegal. And, as I will briefly suggest in the Epilogue, that implication may be profoundly important should (as seems quite likely) the Federal Government overlay this liberal regime with a return to more illiberal and repressive means of handling dissidents in the name of "homeland security." Perhaps ironically, the further implication is that a boisterous, contentious, "politics of the street" is more necessary now than ever if any effective right to free speech is to be retained.

The Geography of Speech

The First Amendment to the US Constitution is straightforward: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."27 This has rarely prevented Congress from doing exactly that, and the history of United States Constitutional law is a history (at least in part) of "abridgements" to the right to speak and to assemble. Even more than Congress, however, State and local jurisdictions have rarely felt much compunction about limiting the speech and assembly rights of agitators, labor union members, socialists, and nearly anyone else they didn't like.28 The importance of Gitlow, in this context, is that despite upholding Gitlow's conviction, it "marks the beginning of the 'incorporation' of the First Amendment as a limitation on the states."29 That is, Gitlow began the process applying the Fourteenth Amendment to the First, and thereby extending the reach of the latter so as to guard against actions of the States in addition to the federal government. In the words of one commentator, Gitlow started a process that "over the next fifty years, resulted in major changes in the modern law of civil liberties, affording citizens a federal remedy if the states deprived them of their fundamental rights."30

The Gitlow decision, and after it the appeals court decision regarding William Epton,31 referenced Holmes's words in Schenck, and tried to determine just what constituted a "clear and present danger." But "the future embraced the Holmes of Abrams rather than the Holmes of Schenck."32 In his dissent in Abrams, Holmes wrote this:

[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas - that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes can safely be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophesy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system I think therefore we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.33

As remarkable and stirring as that passage is, it is also deeply problematic. Its liberal foundation, for example, has no means to recognize differences in power - or even in access to the market, powers that, as we have come to know so well in the current era of media communication, can be absolutely determinant of who can speak and who can be heard.34

As importantly, and as I have explored in detail in other work,35 it is problematic because it puts into place - by implication in Holmes's own words, but later made explicit in a whole series of cases36 - a distinction between speech and conduct. Even "First Amendment absolutists," like Justice Hugo Black saw nothing wrong with the regulation of peaceful rallies if their conduct interfered with some other legitimate interest.37 This conduct could be widely interpreted.38 For most of the first half of the twentieth century, conduct that could be prohibited included the mere act of picketing. Courts upheld numerous injunctions against picketing on the basis that the conduct it entailed was necessarily either violent or harassing.39 Indeed, in one famous case in the 1920s, Chief Justice William Taft wrote of picketing, that its very "persistence, importunity, following and dogging" offended public morals and created a dangerous nuisance.40 The problem with picketing, Taft thought, was twofold. First, through its combination of action and speech, it tried to convince people not to enter some establishment; second, it tended to draw a crowd.41 To the degree it did both - that is, to the degree that is successfully communicated its message - it interrupted business and, in Taft's eyes, undermined the business's property rights, and therefore could be legitimately enjoined.42 Speech was worth protecting to the degree that is was not effective. Not until the 1940s did the Court begin to recognize that there might be an important speech right worth protecting in addition to the unprotected conduct.43

There is an additional result of Holmes's declaration about the value of speech in Abrams. Whereas the First Amendment is silent on why speech is to be protected from Congressional interference,44 Holmes makes it clear that the protection of speech serves a particular purpose: improving the state.45 Indeed, he quickly admits that speech likely to harm the state can be outlawed.46 And neither he nor the Court ever moved away from the "clear and present danger" test of Schenck.47 Speech, Holmes argues, is a good insofar as it helps promote and protect the "truth" of the state.48 There is a large amount of room allowed here for criticism of the state, but it can still be quieted by anything that can reasonably construed as a "legitimate state interest" (like protecting the property rights of a company subject to a strike).49 According to the Gitlow Court (if not Holmes, who did not see in Gitlow's pamphlet enough of a clear and present danger), any speech that "endanger[s] the foundations of organized government and threaten[s] its overthrow by unlawful means" can be banned.50 Note here that speech does not have to advocate the overthrow of government; rather, it can be banned if through its persuasiveness others might seek to overthrow the government.51 On such grounds all manner of manifestos, and many types of street speaking, may be banned. And more broadly, as evidenced in picketing cases like American Steel Foundries, a similar prohibition may be placed on speech that, again through its persuasiveness (e.g. as to the unjustness of some practice or event) rather than through direct exhortation, may incite people to violence.

Of course, speech (and its sister right, assembly), must take place somewhere and it must implicate some set of spatial relations, some regime of control over access to places to speak and places to listen.52 Consequently, the limits to speech, or more accurately the means of limiting speech, become increasingly geographic beginning in 1939 in the case Hague v. CIO, when the Supreme Court finally recognized that public spaces like streets and parks were necessary not only to speech itself but to political organizing.53 The problem is not always exactly what is said, but where it is said. At issue in Hague was whether the rights to speech and assembly extends to the use of the streets and other public places for political purposes, and in what ways that use could be regulated. The Court based its decision in a language of common law, arguing that "[w]herever the title of the streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions."54 But whatever the roots for such a claim may be in common law, it hardly stands historical scrutiny in the United States, where the violent repression of street politics has always been as much a feature of urban life as its promotion.55 That makes Hague v. CIO a landmark decision: it states clearly for the first time that "the use of the streets and parks for the communication of views on national questions may be regulated in the interest of all … [but] it must not, in the guise of regulation, be abridged or denied."56 At the same time, the Court made it clear that protected speech in public spaces was always to be "exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order…."57 The question, then, became one of finding the ways to regulate speech (and associated conduct) such that order - and even "general comfort" - was always maintained.

The answers to that question were spatial. They were based on a regulation of urban geography in the name of both "good order" and "general comfort" and of the rights to speech and assembly. Speech rights needed to be balanced against other interests and desires. But order and comfort, it ought to go without saying, suggest a much lower threshold than does "clear and present danger." While recognizing in a new way a fundamental right to speech and assembly, that is, the Hague court in fact found a language to severely limit that right, and perhaps even to limit it more effectively than had heretofore been possible. To put this another way (and as I will argue more fully below), the new spatial order of speech and assembly that the Court began constructing in Hague allowed for the full flowering of a truly liberal speech regime: a regime for which we are all, in fact, the poorer.

The rudiments of this regime are familiar enough. Starting in the 1950s, the Court began crafting what has been called the "Roberts Rules of Order" for public space,58 but which are formally known as the public forum doctrine.59 The development of this doctrine has entailed the development of a new metaphor for understanding speech. Where Holmes in the 1920s spoke of a "free trade in ideas," by the 1960s, Justice William Brennan found himself concerned with a "marketplace of ideas."60 Since all ideas need a place in which they can be expressed, the Court had to pay attention to the nature - the structure as well as the rules governing - that place. "[F]reedom of speech does not exist in the abstract," Brennan argued. "On the contrary, the right to speak can flourish only if it is allowed to operate in an effective forum -- whether it be a public park, a schoolroom, a town meeting hall, a soapbox, or a radio and television frequency."61 The issue Brennan is raising here is what constitutes an effective forum and how that forum can be "regulated in the interests of all" while maintaining "general comfort" and "good order."62 This is the issue the Court has been grappling with since Hague. Its solution has been to establish a set of rules, often the subject of litigation to this day - and of vigorous disagreement among the Supreme Court justices - that allow for the regulation of the time, the place, and the manner of speech, but not the direct regulation of the content of public and political speech. Public forum doctrine has evolved in hopes of assuring that order can be preserved while speech itself, at least formally, is protected.

The Court, therefore, has developed a typology of places. First are "traditional public forums" - like many streets and parks - where political speech has "traditionally" taken place. In these areas, any regulation of speech is subject to "strict scrutiny" - that is, regulation must be shown to protect some vital state interest, or to prevent some clearly identifiable harm. Speech and assembly may be regulated as to time, place, and manner, just so long as that regulation remains "content neutral." Similarly, any permit system developed to assure that appropriate time, place, and manner restrictions are followed must also be content neutral. The second type of places are "dedicated public forums," which are those spaces specifically designated by a governing agency as available for First Amendment purposes. Examples include public university free speech areas - and perhaps classrooms - or the plazas in front of some government buildings.63 Use of these spaces for speech and assembly activities may be revoked for everyone (the dedication may be removed), but such a revocation cannot be done on either a case-by-case basis or on the basis of content. The third category is public property that is not a public forum: military bases, the insides of most government buildings, and, as we will see, airport grounds.64 Of course, there is also a fourth kind of place - or more accurately property. On private property, except in some very limited circumstances, speech rights simply do not pertain. Such property is of growing importance as more and more public activities occur on publicly accessible private property, like shopping malls, or redeveloped waterfronts whose titles have been ceded to the developers.65 The implications for speech and assembly of this growth of publicly accessible private property, as we will see below, are profound.66

But the point that I want to make is that with the development of public forum doctrine, we can begin to see that the silencing of speech - and consequently of protest - is now affected most readily not by its outright ban, as with William Epton, but rather through the regulation of the conduct that accompanies it and the place where it occurs To do so I undertake three case studies. These studies, I think, are emblematic of the ways that, in the name of promotion, speech is silenced in public space. They are not exhaustive, and as will be clear, they indicate that struggle over not only the right to speak, but also to be heard, continues unabated. It is this on-going struggle that has forced the Court into its promotion of a liberal theory of speech, and its concomitant development of public forum doctrine. And it is this on-going struggle that the Court, in the future, will have to continue to contend.

Changing Geographies of Protest

Case 1: The Privatization of Public Space

The first case study concerns the privatization of public space. Note, in the 1939 Hague decision quoted above, the phrase, "wherever the title … may rest."67 As the geography of the public forum has shifted, that title - that is, the status of space as property - has taken on added significance. It is hardly news to point out that privately-owned but publicly-accessible spaces, like malls, shopping centers, and festival market places have become primary gathering places in North American cities.68 But since public space is not only a space of politics, but also a space of sociable gathering (and, indeed, each has historically been essential to the success of the other69); and since political speech has its greatest impact if it occurs where the people are; then while the privatization of public space may not be news, it is nonetheless of incredible importance. This is so, in part, because the Supreme Court has declared that the First Amendment simply does not extend into the space of the mall.70 The property rights of the owners trump the rights of citizens to political speech.

How the Court got to this determination is interesting, and interestingly geographic. In 1946 the Supreme Court declared in Marsh v. Alabama that the right to distribute religious literature (and by extension to engage in other expressive activity) in a company town could not be revoked.71 Even though the town was private property - the streets, the buildings, the sidewalks, the open spaces, everything, was owned by a single company - the company could not block all speech it did not like, even when invoking its property claim. Justice Hugo Black wrote the opinion and in it he made it clear that the company had taken on all the functions of a duly constituted government, and thus was, in many ways, bound by the same restrictions as a public government would be.72

Twenty-four years later, in 1968, the Court ruled that a labor union had the right to picket outside a store located inside a shopping center, even though by doing so, the picketers were located on private property owned by a third party.73 This time Justice Black dissented, arguing that the earlier company town case examined a specific, not easily generalizable situation, a situation where all the available places for expressive activity were owned as private property. Since the shopping center did not monopolize all space in the region, there were, in Black's view, adequate other places to picket within the city and so there was no reason to undermine the private property right of the shopping center owner.74 And by 1972, the Court had come around to Black's way of thinking, declaring that anti-war protesters had no right to leaflet inside a mall.75 Four years after that - in 1976 - the Court reversed its labor picketing decision and banned picketers from privately-owned malls, saying that the original company town decision really did only apply to a company town that "was performing the full spectrum of municipal powers and stood in the shoes of the state."76 Because the shopping center is private property, the Court declared, "[w]e conclude, in short, that under the present state of the law the constitutional guarantee of free expression has no part to play…." 77

At the same time, however, the Supreme Court left open the possibility that the various State constitutions might allow for a less restrictive speech regime in publicly accessible private property. In 1979, therefore, the California Supreme Court held in Robins v PruneYard Shopping Center that private shopping center has to allow petition-signature gathering on its property.78 The California Court based its decision on a number of grounds, including the importance to the State of the petition and referendum processes, but it also noted that since malls invited the public in, for both shopping and social reasons, they created "an essential and invaluable forum for exercising [the] rights" of free speech and petition.79

Perhaps most importantly, the California Court held that "[a]ll private property is held subject to the government to regulate its use for the public welfare."80 Even more explicitly, it held that the state's interest in promoting free speech trumped the rights of property owners "for control over their property."81

A year later, to many people's surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the California Supreme Court's finding.82 But it did so without invalidating its earlier rulings restricting the federal right to speech on private property. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the California Court's decision did not sanction a "taking" of private property under the Fifth Amendment,83 and that the shopping center, like a city government could institute certain time, place, and manner restrictions that assured that the center's function as a place for shopping would not be interfered with.84 But it did all this on the grounds that States could institute a broader right to freedom of expression under their constitutions than that recognized at the federal level; as long as the provisions of the United States Constitution were not dampened (but were instead amplified) there was no problem with disparity between State and Federal constitutions on such issues.85

This is, in some ways, a remarkable result, because as the Supreme Court was restricting the right under the Federal constitution to protest, picket, or pamphlet on private property, it was simultaneously allowing states to expand that right. But the result has to be tempered by the fact that few states, in fact, have found broader protection of speech than that which exists at the federal level.86 And, indeed, in California, the right to use shopping centers for political activity has pretty much been limited to petitioning and leafleting: actual, physical speech - standing up, say, and giving a speech on the need to throw the rascals out of the legislature - can be easily regulated and usually banned.

Consider, in this regard, the case of the Horton Plaza Shopping Center in Downtown San Diego. Horton Plaza Shopping Center is the centerpiece of San Diego's downtown redevelopment.87 The Shopping Center - a festival marketplace-type mall - was built next to the traditional center of downtown San Diego, Horton Plaza Park.88 The intent of the mall was to create a new center for downtown, one perceived to be safe and free from the urban problems that were seen by many to plague Horton Plaza Park itself: homelessness, loitering, public drunkenness, and so forth. City planners and the Hahn Corporation - the developer of the mall - hoped that the mall would draw suburbanites and tourists into the urban core and help cement the historic preservation-oriented gentrification of the nearby Gaslamp Quarter. In turn, this would lead to the removal or relocation of the soup kitchens and other social services, the X-rated bookstores, theaters, and cheap bars that served the sailor and transient populations that congregated downtown, and the flophouses and Single Room Occupancy hotels that housed the indigent (and largely elderly) people who were the main residents of the downtown core.89 The removal and relocation of these sorts of land uses, city planners hoped, would again make downtown inviting for inward investment, middle and upper class residents, and conventioneers. It worked, eventually.90

When Horton Plaza Shopping Center opened in 1985, it had the effect of internalizing much of the life of the city, an effect that wasn't really overcome until after the city emerged from the deep recession of the early 1990s.91 In the meantime, Horton Plaza Park became a contested zone, with the mall and other nearby property owners continually working, often through the city's redevelopment agency, to find ways to remove the homeless, the poor, and others who would gather there. After all, the park served as the entrance to the mall for most of those who came by foot (which is how most workers in the neighboring skyscraper district would arrive). By 1991, the city had put in place plans, largely related to landscaping, that simply made it impossible to hang out in the park. The benches were removed and the lawns were replaced by prickly plants.92 The park became a place to pass through, rather than to gather, to the satisfaction of the Horton Plaza Shopping Center management which was intent on making their mall the central gathering point downtown.93 According to the former president of the Gaslamp Quarter Association (and an original tenant of the mall), even with the successful gentrification of neighboring streets, Horton Plaza Shopping Center remains one of the - if not the - primary public spaces in the city.94

In the meantime, however, the developer of the mall, the Hahn Corporation,95 was determined to clearly regulate just what kind of gathering place (what kind of "public" space) it was going to be. In (reluctant) deference to the PruneYard decision,96 Hahn had established a permitting system that allowed groups to use the space of the mall for petitioning and leafleting. Permitted organizations were restricted to one of four small areas where they were given access to a "community cart" (similar to those used by venders) and two chairs. Form these, shoppers could be leafleted or approached and engaged in conversation.97 Permits had to be requested 72 hours in advance,98 and no more than two people from the same group could occupy the designated leafleting space at the same time.99 Finally, no political activity of any type was permitted between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

On March 12, 1986, William Phipps applied for a permit from Horton Plaza Shopping Center to perform on mall property a political skit dramatizing the effects of US-sponsored bombings in El Salvador. Phipps applied on behalf of an organization known as Playing for Real Theater and said that there would be eight people performing for about 10 minutes, followed by leafleting. Despite the fact that management of the mall had frequently encouraged street performers to perform at the mall,100 and that it had played host to concerts and other large gatherings, the manager denied the request to perform a skit (citing congestion problems), but approved the request to hand out leaflets.101

Playing for Real and Phipps did not appeal the denial; nor did they take advantage of the opportunity to hand out leaflets. Neither did they ever attempt to circumvent the denial of permission and attempt to perform their skit anyway.102 Nonetheless, on April 4, Horton Plaza Associates, the legal entity that owned the mall on behalf of the Hahn Corporation, went to court and sued Phipps, Playing for Real, and the San Diego chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), seeking injunctive relieve against trespass, interference with business, and annoyance. The mall sought a temporary restraining order against the defendants to prevent them from performing any skits at the mall. The rationale for seeking relief was that an unnamed police informant had told a detective that the group was planning a protest for April 5, to start outside the mall in Horton Plaza Park and then move inside the shopping center.103 The mall was granted the restraining order. Through it (in the words of the California Appellate Court decision on the case), Phipps and his associates were specifically enjoined from:

performing a great variety of expressive acts within the Center, including distributing pamphlets or other literature, soliciting signatures except as permitted by the Center, soliciting money, using furniture or other materials or displays without permission, approaching any patrons, causing a disturbance on the premises, hindering business, "performing any dramatization or any acts or events," or "in any other way impeding, disturbing, or interfering with the commercial activity of the Horton Plaza Shopping Center….104

Two weeks later the mall won a preliminary injunction against the defendants, which, in essence, made the temporary restraining order permanent.

In support of the injunction, the management of the mall made its position clear as to why it was imperative to prohibit the kinds of politically expressive conduct Playing for Real engaged in. Karen Lesley Binder, the director of public relations for the mall argued in an affidavit:

In my opinion, Horton Plaza is particularly subject to being detrimentally affected by unregulated political activity occurring within the center. In this regard, Horton Plaza is, of course, located in downtown San Diego; in order for us to attract customers, we must overcome the public's perception that a downtown environment may not be their first choice for shopping activities. In my opinion, a visitor to this downtown shopping center is more sensitive to being subjected to political demonstrations and solicitations than at a competitive suburban shopping mall. In view of same, my objective at Horton Plaza is to create a relaxed, nonthreatening environment, and to have an atmosphere distinctive from the adjacent downtown areas. All promotional activity at the center is designed and regulated to not only entertain our customers, but to encourage shopping activity and specifically avoid any interference with customer traffic and customer shopping. I am particularly concerned that the unregulated activity such as that desired by Defendants would be contrary to those objectives, and substantially interfere with shopping activity at the center.105

In addition, since the mall had a program of street performance in place, it was concerned that the public would take a skit performed by a political group to be a part of the mall's own promotional activities and as such to assume that the mall endorsed the political views expressed.106

The Court granted the injunction and further held that Horton Plaza Shopping Center's time, place, and manner restrictions were reasonable. In essence, the Court approved "prior restraint" on the defendants' speech acts in the mall, finding in advance that they were unprotected. Both the injunction and this finding were upheld on appeal. Since the California Supreme Court ultimately declined to review the Court of Appeal's decision,107 the Horton case stands, in California at least, as the final word on what sort of speech is possible in a California mall.

That speech looks like this: The appeals court found that while the state Supreme Court's decision in PruneYard protected leafleting and petitioning on publicly open private property, it did not protect "expressive conduct" like performing a play.108 The court cited a whole series of cases to show that private property could not be considered anything like a traditional public forum. Moreover, according to the Court, other public forums existed largely because Horton Plaza was located in the city and not in the suburbs:

Horton Plaza differs from the shopping centers involved in the [other cases where more expansive free speech rights have been upheld] because it is a downtown rather than a suburban shopping center. Decisions such as Pruneyard discuss how a suburban shopping center tends to become the only place in a large community where people can be found gathering together on foot; accordingly, such a center is indeed the most conveniently available forum for the dissemination of ideas and solicitation of signatures. Horton, however, lies in the heart of a downtown metropolitan business district where extensive pedestrian traffic occurs on the streets surrounding the center as well as within it. Under these circumstances, the Center owner cannot be said to have a monopoly of pedestrian traffic in the area such as would justify extensive interference with his right to manage his property.109

But the court's argument here chooses to ignore the fact that Horton Plaza Shopping Center's whole goal, even to the point of sponsoring the removal of benches in Horton Plaza Park, was to move public life inside, to capture it really, for its own commercial interests.

Such geographic strategies on the part of private property owners to control the movements and gatherings of people had little impact on the court. Through such strategies the area where political speech can be continues to shrink.110 Protest is easily silenced when the significant gathering places in a city are private property - unless of course we concede that the only valid form of political speech is that specifically approved of in PruneYard, petitioning and leafleting.111

Yet this is not to say that protesters will fare any better on public property, as we will see in the next case study.

Case 2: Picketing at an Airport

This second case study concerns a strike. Faced with a contract they were not happy with in late September, 2000, about 85 workers on the automated baggage handling system at Denver International Airport (DIA) voted to go on strike against Phelps Program Management, the subcontractor that operated the baggage machinery on the United Concourse.112 The union representing the baggage handlers was the same as the one representing United’s mechanics, customer service agents, and ramp workers, the International Association of Machinists (IAM). While a number of rank-and-file machinists and other non-baggage handlers said they might cross a picket line if one was established by the baggage handlers, the IAM in Washington said it might call on all its members at DIA to honor the picket line.113

Meanwhile, United got the City of Denver to agree to restrict picketing to a rarely-used, empty parking lot some three miles from the terminal and threatened any non-striking worker with disciplinary action if they failed to show up to work as scheduled.114 The reason this location was chosen was bluntly stated by the airport’s spokesman: "We issued a permit for the union to picket in the Mount Elbert parking lot. United’s workers won’t have to cross the picket line when they get to work."115 In other words, because picketing might have been effective at a more central location,116 it was banished, an action that threw the unions at the airport into disarray.

Standard policy among flight attendants and pilots unions is to honor picket lines, but since they would not have to cross the picket line to get to their place of employment, it was doubtful that many would not show up for work. "Our pilots will probably go to work if no one is picketing at the entrance of the terminal," noted a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.117 Put in even more of a bind were the brother and sister members of the IAM who worked in other jobs at the airport. The IAM recommended that non-striking workers got to work since they would not have to cross a picket line to get to it.118

When the Phelps workers walked off the job at 5 am on Tuesday, September 26, 2000, they acquiesced to the City’s restriction and set up their picket line in the distant Mt. Ebert parking lot.119 And out at that parking lot, the silence was deafening, just as it was meant to be. Even though picketers marched and yelled at Phelps management who (as we will see later) were required to park in the lot, the Denver Post reported that "a cold wind blowing across the plains south of Denver International Airport muffled their shouts, and only a handful of groggy reporters witnessed their protests."120 "Had airport officials allowed Phelps’ 85 union workers to picket at the terminal or employee parking lots," the Post continued, "they might have brought United to its knees."121 The question of whether or not Union brothers and sisters should honor the picket line was rendered moot by the removal of the pickets to the Mt. Elbert lot. As the vice president of the Denver Council of the Association of Flight Attendants remarked, "[t]here is no physical picket line for us to cross, so we haven’t crossed a lawful picket line."122

The case law that made the banishment of the pickets, and hence assured their ineffectuality, is interesting. Labor law allows general contractors at construction sites to limit picketing against a subcontractor to a designated location, like a secondary gate, so that the business of the general contractor can continue unimpeded.123 This location becomes the point at which non-striking workers and managers for the struck company must "enter the workplace," so that anyone going to work for the struck subcontractor must pass the picket line. No one else has to. Phelps argued that its position as a subcontractor to United allowed it to do the same thing. Phelps management (and its few non-striking, non-union employees), therefore, had to park in the struck parking lot, but they were the only ones.124 And since this was now the designated entry point for Phelps workers, picket lines established anywhere else at DIA, if they were effective, could be construed as encouraging an illegal secondary boycott by United employees, since the lines were clearly not set in the way of the Phelps workers, according to a Phelps attorney.125

The IAM threatened to file a court injunction to get the picket location changed, but in the first day of the strike did not do so,126 preferring to try instead to get the airport authority to designate a better site for picketing.127 In the meantime, the City of Denver issues a permit allowing striking Phelps workers to hand out informational leaflets, but not to picket, at employee parking lots. Only five days into the strike, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News was able to report that "[w]hile a handful of striking baggage workers maintain their picket lines nearly three miles from their place of employment, the public’s interest in their strike and Denver International Airport’s operations continue unscathed."128 The enforced silence of the picketers was having its desired effect, which was, according to the Mayor of Denver, "to keep the airport operating."129

In hopes of reviving the public’s waning interest, airport workers and the Colorado AFL-CIO staged a solidarity protest at the picket site on the seventh day of the strike.130 The next day, the IAM finally filed suit against the city in federal court.131 The suit was filed on First Amendment grounds, and explicitly made the case that picketing was a form of speech that any passer-by was free to ignore: it was not a form of compulsion and hence the city could not claim the denial of a speech right on the grounds of protecting the operation of the airport. This was a difficult argument because both the city and the union agreed that the airport was a "nonpublic forum" and that the city had the right to restrict speech on airport property.132

After a hearing, the federal judge, Lewis Babcock, found for the city and ordered the picketers to remain where they were. Babcock’s argument is important: "If this case is viewed through the lens of the First Amendment, I see no injury here."133 The strikers "were given a reasonable time, manner, and place for pickets."134 Moreover, they had been provided with the opportunity to distribute informational leaflets elsewhere at the airport. Finally, the judge ruled that the probable effect of allowing pickets at the airport would be to "create chaos at DIA" by encouraging a secondary boycott.135 Indeed, the judge argued that strong circumstantial evidence suggested that encouraging an airport-wide strike was the union’s goal in the first place and that the First Amendment argument it was making was a smokescreen.136

The argument, then, is that it is both reasonable and good to move strikers to a place where they cannot be effective, where their speech will have no possibility of being heard, if that means protecting the financial and other interests of the city. Or to put it another way, people can speak and protest and picket all they want, just so long as that speaking and protesting and picketing has no chance of being effective. The silencing at work here, though, is not only the silence of banishment through time, place, and manner regulations, and a permitting system that benefits the collective employers (Phelps, United, DIA, other airlines, etc.) over the collective workers (the IAM and the other unions). It is also a silencing accomplished by making the transmission of intended messages impossible. This is made clear in one of the last articles the local papers published on the strike.137 The reporter for the Rocky Mountain News noted that "[a]lthough the strike hasn’t affected airport operations, it garnered a lot of attention because of its potential to shutdown airport operations, if thousands of other airport employees … honored the baggage workers’ picket line."138 If the point of a strike is to gain attention, which in part it is, then the strikers were effective. But if the point of a strike, and the picketing that goes with it, is to apply pressure, and to win demands, then they were not very effective.139 They were not effective because public forum doctrine, together with loaded labor law, allows for the banishment of strikers when it fits the desires of their employers. If workers had been able to picket at their normal place of work ­ where employees entered the terminal, or in the normally-used employees’ parking lots ­ then their message would have had meaning. The content of their speech ­ that there is a strike in progress and it is the obligation of all those who stand for the rights of workers to honor it ­ would have had a chance of being heard. First Amendment law, in this regard, does not so much promote dissident speech as effectively silence it. It does so by assuring that the appropriate place for such speech is only a place that renders speech meaningless. Geography creates de facto content restrictions.

But airports, like malls, might in some sense be considered exceptional cases. The airport, after all, is a nonpublic forum,140 and the mall is private property. What of those traditional public forums that still remain: the streets and parks of the city?

Case 3: Zoning Protest

The third case study therefore returns to the paradigm of public forums, the streets, where protesters now find the city as a whole more and more segregated into a series of protest and no protest zones ­ that is, they find a city looking more and more like the forlorn parking lots of Denver International Airport. In the streets, public forum doctrine encourages police and other city, state, and national officials to construct designated "protest zones" and "no protest zones" outside major international meetings, events like the political conventions, and, perhaps most uncomfortably for progressives, outside abortion clinics. What is at work, I will argue, is a form of public space zoning, sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent.141 As with the City of Denver and its decision to relegate picketers to a distant parking lot, the zoning of public space into areas that allow or disallow protest derives from a desire to "balance" the rights of the protesters with the needs of the event or place being protested.

Perhaps the most intriguing place to examine this dynamic of protest zoning is in Seattle at the height of the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in November and December, 1999. The creation of a no-protest zone during these demonstrations was less an intentional policy of the city, that an outcome of the city’s failure to prevent protest in other ways. As with many cities, Seattle has long has a permitting process for parades and protests. During the WTO meeting, "official" protests had been permitted for a number of areas around town. Labor unions, for example, rallied near the old King Dome; other protesters gathered at the Space Needle. But, on November 30, 1999, some 20,000 un-permitted protesters gathered downtown, many of whom were deployed in a well-organized plan to block key intersections and, it was hoped, to disrupt the ability of the WTO delegates to get to the meeting site. With a small number of protesters smashing windows and engaging in other acts of violence against property, and with the labor unionists beginning their march to join the protesters downtown, Mayor Paul Schell declared a state of emergency, stopped the labor parade before it reached downtown, and asked the Governor to mobilize the National Guard to clear the streets. The next day, Mayor Schell issued an order that barred any person from "enter[ing] or remain[ing] in a public place" within a 50 block zone downtown. Exceptions were granted for WTO delegates, business owners and employees, residents of the zone, emergency personnel, and, interestingly, shoppers.142 Protest was quite simply banned from downtown. While order was restored to the streets quickly after the order was issued, it was not rescinded until after the WTO meeting was over.143

The city staked the legitimacy of its emergency order on the precedent established in the case Madsen v. Women’s Health Center.144 The Madsen case, and one that followed it (Hill v. Colorado145) established the legitimacy of creating "bubbles" around abortion clinics within which protest, picketing, leafleting, and "sidewalk counseling" was either forbidden altogether or severely restricted. The goal, of course, was to protect the rights and safety of women entering the clinics, as well as those of the clinic’s employees.

Following Madsen, the City of Seattle argued not only that creating a fifty block no-protest zone around the WTO meeting was legitimate as an emergency measure, but also that it was legitimate on its face: it was simply a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction on speech and assembly that was tailored to advance a compelling state interest: protecting the delegates to the WTO from the disruptive protests erupting around them.146 The nature of this compelling state interest is unclear. While women have a constitutionally protected, if increasingly fragile, right to abortion that the Madsen decision seeks to balance against the rights of protesters,147 it is impossible to guess what right WTO ministers have to traverse the streets and use the public buildings of Seattle without having to encounter protesters.148 And so, in fact, in its arguments in support of the continuance of the order, the City argued instead that the order was a critical means not only for restoring order, but for maintaining it.

The National Guard and other police forces, armed with the emergency order and their batons, successfully cleared the streets and kept protesters out of downtown on December 1. Here is how one news article reported the scene:

A crackdown that put National Guard troops, state troopers, and police officers in head-to-toe black on every corner of downtown yesterday all but ended impromptu protests against the World Trade Organization while allowing the group’s meetings and permitted processions to go on as scheduled. Standing shoulder to shoulder or marching in unison, Seattle police officers wearing gas masks and carrying batons charged the demonstrators and pushed them out of what was dubbed the "no protest zone" near the convention center where President Clinton addressed the WTO delegates. 149

The interesting word in that passage, of course, is "impromptu." Seattle officials averred over and over that they had no interest in stopping parades and protests that had been sanctioned through its permitting process. The no protest zone was a response to those ­ some violent, the vast majority not ­ who sought to protest without the city’s permission: who sought, that is, to exercise their right to assembly without clearing it with the government first.

In the end, a federal judge upheld the city’s position, seeing no illegitimate abridgement of protesters’ rights in the City’s establishment of a no protest zone. The judge stated, plainly enough, that "free speech must sometimes bend to public safety."150 In this case it had to bend for 50 blocks, and right out of downtown ­ even though in Madsen, the court had found a 36 foot exclusion zone to be reasonable but both a 300 foot zone in which approaching patrons and workers of clinics, and a 300 foot no-protest zone around residences of clinic workers to be too great a burden on free speech, ordering a much smaller no-protest bubble to be drawn.151 Given this sort of spatial specificity in the Supreme Court’s decision, it seems unlikely that such a large protest exclusion zone could withstand scrutiny.

But there is another issue at work too. The judge in Seattle supported the City’s contention that sanctioned protest was acceptable. The no-protest zone was necessary because of impromptu protests. But, of course, the very effectiveness of the Seattle protests was their (apparent) spontaneity.152 That is what caught the media’s ­ and the public’s ­ imagination; and that is what allowed for the massive upsurge of political debate, in the U.S. and around the world, that followed.

Perhaps, tactically, Seattle’s "mistake" was to not establish designated protest and no-protest zones in advance of the meetings. Such a move had been effective in the 1996 Democratic and Republican Conventions (and in earlier ones too). And in subsequent years and events it has become standard practice, as with the 2000 National Conventions, the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, and the World Economic Forum meeting in New York in February 2002, where protesters are kept out of certain areas by fences, barricades and a heavy police presence.153 In the case of the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, it was the protesters who were fenced off, with the City establishing an official "protest zone" in a fenced parking lot a considerable distance from the convention site.154 The rationale, of course, was "security," a rationale backed by appeals to the authority of the Secret Service. The ACLU, among others, sued the city, eventually winning a decision that invalidated the city’s plans. The city was forced to establish a protest zone closer to the convention center, with the judge chiding the City of Los Angeles for failing to consider the First Amendment when it established the rules for protest and security around the event. "You can’t shut down the 1st Amendment about what might happen," the judge said. "You can always theorize some awful scenario."155

This victory should not be considered very large. Its effect, and the effect of other cases like it, has largely reduced the ACLU and other advocates of speech rights to arguing the fine points of geography, pouring over maps to determine just where protest may occur. Protesters are put entirely on the defensive, always seeking to justify why their voices should be heard and their actions seen, always having to make a claim that it is not unreasonable to assert that protest should be allowed in a place where those being protested against can actually hear it, and always having to "bend" their tactics ­ and their rights ­ to fit a legal regime that in every case sees protest subordinate to "the general order" (which, of course, really means the "established order").

In this regard, consider the April 2000 protests in Washington, D.C. against the IMF and the World Bank. The police opened proceedings by shutting down on a pretext (fire code violations) a warehouse that protest groups had rented to serve as a staging area.156 The police then undertook wholesale arrests of protesters for parading without a permit ­ only licensed speech was to be permitted.157 And, of course, the whole area around the World Bank and IMF offices and meeting spaces was simply declared off-limits to protest. The City even went so far as to expand the no-protest zone at the last minute when it was feared that it was not large enough.158 The no protest zone grew to more than 50 blocks, all set off with metal barricades. The whole purpose, as Police Chief Charles Ramsey made abundantly clear, was to assure that "Seattle" ­ that is uncontrolled protest ­ did not occur in Washington.159 The effect, of course, was to ensure that those who were the target of the protests never had to see or hear them, except perhaps on TV. And the pre-emptive arrests and closing down of gathering places assured that the press would spend less time conveying the message of the protest and more time describing and debating the tactics of the protesters and the police.160

Whereas the ghettoization (since that is what it is) of protest was somewhat accidental in the Seattle case,161 it has become an integral part of the practice of protest and its policing elsewhere ­ as in Washington, and at the World Economic Forum meeting in New York City, where protesters were corralled into little pens in the middle of the street and never allowed to gather more than three deep, and where a "frozen zone" around the meeting hotel that only residents, employees, and conference goers were allowed to enter.162

Fenced off cordon-sanitaires have become a staple of the protest landscape, new borders that try to carefully delineate where people have the right to speech and assembly and where they do not. The two complementary ways of policing protest on the streets ­ zoning protesters out or fencing them in ­ are usually defended on the grounds that such restrictions are necessary to assure order or to prevent violence. But to make that argument one has to make an assumption that protest is inherently violent in nature or disorderly, which has the effect of assuming guilt until innocence is proven, rather than visa versa. Or, one must assume that more finely grained policing tactics ­ like arresting people within a largely peaceful protest for engaging in violence ­ and injunctions against specific people already convicted of disorderly or violent behavior, can never be effective.

Furthermore, to make such assumptions simply gives lie to the common law claim upon which public forum doctrine was originally established. If the streets "from time immemorial" have been the place where people debate and discuss, protest and rally, then how is it that now it is only on some streets (or even some parts of the streets) where this is possible, while on other streets ­ the streets where the decisions are made that direct our lives ­ the right to dissident speech is outlawed outright? Indeed, in the end, isn’t protest zoning really just a way of controlling the content of debate without really acknowledging that that is what is being done, by, for example, privileging the right of WTO ministers to meet and to speak over the right of protest groups to contest that speech? Justice Brennan might long ago have argued that the right to speech implies a corollary right to be heard.163 It seems, according to current policing practices at least, he was simply wrong.

Conclusion: The Liberalization of Free Speech

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that at the time the Bill of Rights was written, to "abridge" meant both to "curtail" and to "cut short; to reduce to a small size." The dual meaning of the term probably did not escape the authors of the Bill. The irony of the Supreme Court’s efforts to "incorporate" the First Amendment into the Fourteenth is that it began precisely as a means to curtail, cut short, or at least reduce to a small size the rights of dissenters like Gitlow. Even so, the logic of this incorporation, coupled with the changing politics of the streets and society during the New Deal, forced the Court to liberalize free speech. But in doing so it has found means for it to continue to be abridged it by other means. It is hard to argue that the rights of picketers at Denver International Airport were not very much "reduced to a small size." And as the importance of publicly-accessible private property to public life in the United States has grown, the room to effectively exercise of speech and assembly rights has concomitantly shrunk, it too has been "reduced to a small size."

Such a result was implicit in the very language Justice Holmes used when he launched the project of liberalizing free speech. Since he was concerned with the effects of what people said ­ how mere talk (or, later, other forms of expressive activity) could constitute a "clear and present danger" ­ he had to focus not so much on speech itself but on context, both social and geographical. "We admit that in many places and in ordinary times," he wrote, "the defendants … would have been within their constitutional rights. But the character of the act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done."164 And he meant it. This is the real foundation of public forum doctrine, and so therefore of the liberalization of free speech. Or, to say the same thing, it is the precise legal justification for silencing speech ­ to make it so that it cannot have any effect ­ through geography.

The prosecution of William Epton in 1964 suggests that concerns about content, and so a perceived need to censor, remained strong amid the social upheavals of mid-century. But the growing liberalization of First Amendment law, a liberalization that has suggested that even the most seditious speech165 might be protected (just so long as it was ineffectual166 ) has required regulation to develop in new ways. Instead of focusing on exactly what is said (as was the case in the World War I cases), court rulings and police practices since the late 1930s have begun exploring the ways that the meaning of what is said ­ its effectiveness ­ is a result of where it is said ­ its geography. And with this, courts have sought, under the rubric of balancing competing needs and rights, to determine a set of rules for regulating speech. Simultaneously, the privatization of public space, the movement of sociality unto the private property of the mall, as demonstrated with the case of Horton Plaza, shows that the right to speech and assembly can be undermined through something as mundane as changing property regimes.167

To the degree that the state has learned ­ or been forced ­ to restrain itself from regulating just what is said and thought, some rather large (if still tenuous) victories have been won. It is quite possible that a Debs or a Schenk would not now be prosecuted (though an Arab equivalent of a Frohwerk might still be quickly spirited away). But these victories have been steadily eroded through a new legal regime in which courts, rather than Congress, have taken the lead in abridging the rights to speech and assembly by assiduously segregating speech and protest, by zoning it, so that its very effectiveness can be minimized and perhaps eliminated. It is clear that in the U.S., the right to speak does no imply a right to even be potentially effective, to have a chance to make a difference.168 Dissident speakers have to remain outside the mall that has become the new public space of the city; they must remain at a distance from the politicians and the delegates they seek to influence; they must picket only where they will have no chance of creating a meaningful picket line.

But no matter what the courts say and no matter how carefully police and courts together draw the lines of protest, creating a geography of rights that can be frankly oppressive, Seattle and later Quebec, and perhaps especially events in Genoa, have shown that there are ways to transcend geography, to speak out loudly and insistently, against those who would effectively silence protest in public space. The answer to this geography of censorship will have to come through not a revival of civil protest, but of civil disobedience. For only through civil disobedience will a liberal theory of speech and assembly ever be transcended, and replaced with something far more progressive ­ something concerned less with the "truth" of the state, and more with constantly assuring its justness.


As the preceding argument has indicated, the liberalization of free speech has not always been progressive. And it has not been progressive in both senses of the term. It has not marched steadily forward, uninterrupted, towards the shining light of freedom, to become ever more liberal, ever more just. Rather, to the degree it has been liberalized, this has occurred in fits and starts, with frequent steps backwards or to the side rather than forward. Like any social history, that is, the history of free speech is not a linear one of ever-expanding enlightenment; like any social history it is a history of on-going struggle. Nor has it been progressive in the sense of necessarily more just, as a close focus on the geography of speech makes clear. Geographical analysis has shown that what sometimes appears as a progressive reinforcement of a right to speech and assembly is really (or is also) in fact a means towards its suppression.169 Nonetheless, whatever rights have been won, have been won through struggle and often not by following the law, but by breaking it. Civil disobedience, by labor activists and other picketers, by civil rights marchers, by anti-war protesters, and by Free Speech activists (as with the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the sixties), has forced often illiberal theories of speech and assembly to be reconsidered. But against these struggles has to be set a history of governmental recidivism: the Palmer raids and Red Scare of 1919-1920, the Smith Act of 1940, the McCarthy era, and the antics of COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 1970s, are just a few of the more well-known moments of repression, often cloaked in law and justified as urgent "legitimate state interests" at a time when serious challenges were being made to the "established order" or when other exigent factors induced panic within the government and the public at large. The history of speech and assembly, that is, can be told as an on-going struggle against recurring illiberalism.

We are, most likely, now reentering an illiberal phase, and if I am right that civil disobedience has always been necessary to winning and securing rights to assembly and speech, there is a great deal to be deeply concerned about. For the closing off of space to protest has made civil disobedience all the more necessary right at the moment when new laws make civil disobedience not just illegal, but potentially terroristic. The witch’s brew of Supreme Court spatial regulation of speech and assembly and new anti-terrorism laws portends deep trouble for those of us who think we have a duty as well as a right to transform our government when we think it is in the wrong, a duty and a right for which street protest is sometimes the only resource.

Within six weeks of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress had passed, and the President signed into law, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act).170 Among its many provisions, the Act defines as domestic terrorism, and therefore covered under the Act, "acts dangerous to human life that are in violation of the criminal laws," if they "appear to be intended … to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" and if they "occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States."171 As Nancy Chang argues:

Acts of civil disobedience that take place in the United States necessarily meet three of the five elements in the definition of domestic terrorism: they constitute a "violation of the criminal laws," they are "intended … to influence the policy of a government," and they "occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States." Many acts of civil disobedience, including the blocking of streets and points of egress by nonviolent means during a demonstration or sit-in, could be construed as "acts dangerous to human life" that appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government "by intimidation or coercion," which case they would meet the crimes remaining elements…. As a result, protest activities that previously would most likely have ended with a charge of disorderly conduct under a local ordinance can now lead to federal prosecution and conviction for terrorism.172

As the space for protest has become more and more tightly zoned, the likelihood that laws will be broken in the course of a demonstration ­ a demonstration seeking to "influence a policy of government" ­ increases. And, of course, the very reason for engaging in a demonstration is to coerce, even if it is not to directly "intimidate." One should not be sanguine about the "or" placed between intimidate and coerce. It means just what it says: coercion or intimidation will be enough for prosecution.173 Now even civil disobedience can be construed as an act of terrorism.

The intersection of the new repressive state apparatus being constructed in the wake of September 11 with nearly a century of speech and assembly "liberalization" portends a frightening new era in the history of speech and assembly in America. We may soon come to long for those days when protest in public space was only silenced through the strategic geography of the public forum doctrine.