Conventions likely will test commitment to first freedoms

Monday, July 30, 2012

Both major political parties already have presumptive presidential nominees, so any official action taking place at their national conventions likely will range from flowery oratory to planned “spontaneous” floor demonstrations.

But outside in the convention cities — Tampa, Aug. 27-30, for Republicans, and Charlotte, Sept. 4-6, for Democrats — not so. There, vocal, challenging political speech will test not just candidate eardrums and police procedures, but our tolerance for core freedoms as well.

The First Amendment guarantees our right to free speech and the freedoms to assemble peaceably and petition the government for change.

Yet, in the name of security or public safety or even convention decorum, battle lines already are being drawn over who will be able to say what, where, when and how.

Those planning demonstrations at either or both events have been saying for some time that they expect to push up against rules and actual barriers set up by law enforcement and convention organizers — but all have pledged to stop short of violence.

On the police and convention organizer side, they both say they will respect demonstrators’ First Amendment freedoms — but also that they will keep security and order in mind.

The aftermath of recent conventions by both parties has been marked by lawsuits brought by the improperly detained or arrested, with settlements, fines and the occasional court order or agreement to better train police officers for “next time” — hardly a ringing affirmation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Not that some are not trying to do a better job this time around: Several recent news reports note that for $57,000 Tampa city officials have leased an open lot a few hundred feet from the convention center which will be open to demonstrators 24 hours a day.

At least delegates coming and going may be able to hear the protests.

Still, those same reports note that about $25 million in federal aid has been spent upgrading security and adding several thousand police officers to control protests, along with money for gas masks, security cameras and such.

For their part, protest groups have pledged to “peaceably assemble” in the two cities. But the specter of arrest and violence already tinges these counter-delegations’ preparations. The National Lawyers Guild is assembling a legal support team of volunteer lawyers from Florida to represent protesters.

And at least one journalism group, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, again has prepared local counsel and telephone hotlines for use by journalists swept up in police dragnets — or, as some have claimed in past years, targeted by authorities anxious to avoid negative images or documentation of police activity.

Complicating matters with regard to First Amendment rights — and other core legal protections like protection against unreasonable search and seizure — are broad insurance policies that protect the cities from financial losses due to lawsuits over false arrests or other such claims.

Yes, such insurance does protect local taxpayers’ wallets, but based on previous convention outcomes, they can leave citizens’ shares of the Bill of Rights in tatters, promoting an “arrest ‘em now, sort ‘em out later” approach by authorities.

At this point, training and preparation are done. Plans have been made and promises to respect First Amendment rights have been made.

All that’s left to do is to convene again in these quadrennial exercises that ratify candidate selections and mark the start of the last segment of the presidential campaigns — and observe whether all the rhetoric about America’s core values translates into respect for our core freedoms.

Also see: Dubious protest-control tactics threaten First Amendment

Planning can prevent violations of free assembly at political conventions


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