An odd view of free speech

Thursday, September 27, 2007

This is the first of two columns on President Bush’s version of the First Amendment.

When I ask students, even in some graduate schools of journalism, to name the five freedoms in the First Amendment, [those] that quickly come are the freedoms of speech and press; and free exercise of religion. But the meaning of “establishment of religion” is clouding and often entirely forgotten are the right of peaceable assembly — and “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The last two appear to be unknown in the White House.

I have a copy of the Presidential Advance Manual that instructs staffers responsible for preparing presidential appearances around the country to deter “potential demonstrators” from attending such events as “speeches, rallies, roundtable meetings and tours.” (The manual was obtained by subpoena in an ACLU lawsuit by two arrested demonstrators.) On July 4, 2004, during a speech at West Virginia’s state capitol in Charleston, President Bush assured us all: “On this Fourth of July, we confirm our love of freedom, the freedom for people to speak their minds. … Free thought, free expression, that’s what we believe.”James Madison, the principal architect of the First Amendment, would have been very pleased.

It’s fair to say, however, that he would have been appalled at the Presidential Advance Manual dated October 2002, but still in effect though, fortunately, not the law of the land. Mr. Bush’s July 4 speech omitted that: “All Presidential events must be ticketed or assessed by name list. This is the best method for preventing demonstrators,” the manual instructs the advance team. But, in a reluctant nod to the First Amendment, the manual affords roisterers a token “protest area,” “preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade.” (The president should not be disturbed while collecting and expressing his thoughts on our love of freedom.) This virtual “protest area” is to be arranged by the Secret Service in cooperation with local police.

But what if someone who has read the First Amendment manages to get into a presidential event itself? The manual is prepared for this irreverent intrusion by dissenting citizens. It calls for “rally squads” of volunteers using “large hand-held signs, banners (with favorable messages) “as presidential shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform.” Madison didn’t foresee presidential “shields” against free speech.

Should demonstrators be so disrespectful in the presence of their president to yell at him, “rally squads can begin and lead supportive chants to drown out the protesters.” Suggested chants are: “USA! USA! USA!” This surely wasn’t in the president’s remarks in his celebration of “Free thought, free expression, that’s what we believe.” But the White House Advance Manual on curbing free thought and free expression actually advocates using “USA!” to block free speech.

Can this be the message we want to send to the world about our democracy in action? The advance manual’s answer to that impertinent question is to urge that when the president is speaking before “larger rallies,” these “rally squads,” including “college/young Republican organizations, local athletic teams and fraternities/sororities,” should get in front of the stage and “immediately in front of the main camera platform.” Thereby the cameras will focus on truly right-thinking Americans instead of the rabble expressing themselves.

The authors of this advance manual, not wanting their instructions on sheltering the president at public events to appear too draconian, inserted a cautionary note: “If it is determined that the media will not see or hear the demonstrators and that they pose no potential disruption to the event, they can be ignored.” And in boldface, there is this urgent command: “remember: avoid physical contact with the demonstrators! Most often, the demonstrators want a physical confrontation. Do not fall into their trap! Also, do not do anything or say anything that might result in physical harm to demonstrators. Before taking action, the Advance person must decide if the solution would cause more negative publicity than if the demonstrators were simply left alone.”

It is somewhat heartening that the White House recognizes that these official methods of revising the First Amendment, the strongest foundation of individual liberties of any country in the world, might create “negative publicity.” But a recently settled lawsuit by the government brought by two protesters who were handcuffed and arrested at the very July 4, 2004, West Virginia speech by the president extolling our freedom to speak our minds has brought negative publicity.

In my continuation of this redemption of the First Amendment, I shall describe what caused these two practitioners of the First Amendment to be jailed and charged with trespassing. There has been no word from the president.

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. May be linked to but not republished without Hentoff’s permission. Originally posted on The Washington Times Web site on Sept. 10. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Village Voice in New York.