Fear of dissent is a fear of freedom

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Late last month, a junior sociology major at George Mason University in
Fairfax, Va., silently stationed himself near a military recruiters’ table on
campus. The student, Tariq Khan, is a Pakistani-American and a veteran who served four years in the U.S. Air Force. He held literature and wore a sign stating, “Recruiters
lie. Don’t be deceived.”

The recruiters, naturally, were not happy. Some bystanders weren’t either.
Words were exchanged. Campus police arrived, Tariq Khan was unable to produce
identification, a scuffle ensued, and the student, bruised and bloodied,
according to one news account, was taken to jail. He will appear in court on
Nov. 14 on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing.

That same day, at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, a similar clash
was unfolding. State police in riot gear, with gas masks at the ready, were on
hand when a dozen or more students gathered to protest National Guard recruiters
on campus. A police officer reportedly grabbed a student’s sign, reading “Cops
Are Hypocrites.” The student wound up banned from campus and facing possible
criminal charges.

Similar anti-military recruiting protests have resulted in similar
confrontations on college and university campuses across the nation, according
to an Oct. 12 article in The Nation. They include New York’s City
College, William Paterson University in New Jersey, San Francisco State, the
University of California-Santa Cruz and the University of Wisconsin.

Protesters off campus run into the same problems. On Sept. 26, 370 anti-war
protesters outside the White House were hauled away to jail. Also that day, 41
demonstrators at the Pentagon were picked up and carted off for booking.

Officially, authorities cite trespass, disorderly conduct, failure to obtain
a permit and similar laws as reasons for arrests, threats of arrest and
disruption of such demonstrations. Unofficially, they send a chilling signal
that disagreement with government policy or majority opinion can get you in
trouble with the law.

That message is clearly sent when police videotape peaceful gatherings, which
happened at the teach-in at George Mason University the week after the arrest of
Tariq Khan.

That message is clearly sent when authorities cite possible involvement in
“terrorist activities” as justification for spying on advocacy groups. The
American Civil Liberties Union recently obtained through the Freedom of
Information Act an FBI document that targets a peace group and an
affirmative-action group in Michigan.

“This document confirms our fears that federal and state counterterrorism
officers have turned their attention to groups and individuals engaged in
peaceful protest activities,” said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney.

One does not have to endorse or defend anti-war or anti-military sentiments
raised in peaceful protests to recognize the risk that suppressing dissenting
voices poses for a vital democracy. Whether stifling such voices is done in the
name of good order or disagreement with the message, such actions reflect a fear
of dissent.

Fear regularly tests Americans’ commitment to First Amendment rights and
values. It has done so since the nation’s inception. And we have yet to conquer
the instinct to fear speech and limit liberty.

That instinct is especially active during wartime. Afraid of foreign enemies,
we’ve attacked our own rights. We sent hundreds of Americans to prison under the
1798 Sedition Act and the 1917 Espionage Act for criticizing war or the
government or its leaders.

Today, facing real and symbolic wars against terrorism, we too often allow
our leaders to insulate themselves from criticism and opposition. Public
officials herd college students, demonstrators, even journalists, into so-called
“free-speech zones.” Government agents peer over the shoulders of ordinary
citizens engaged in First Amendment activities on the Internet, on cell phones,
at the library, even at their places of worship. We propose amending the
Constitution to prevent burning a U.S. flag as political protest.

The fear and distrust driving such actions is particularly dangerous when
they defang political discourse. Discourse promotes deliberation. Deliberation
ensures sound and supported government policies and actions. But without robust
dissent, discourse is anemic and ultimately ineffectual.

That’s why the courts generally have held that the First Amendment protects
dissent, which in turn ensures government accountability, fosters new ideas and
sharpens old ones. In the absence of clear and concerted citizen commitment to
such principles, however, all speech eventually kneels before official

Constitutional guarantees alone will not fully protect those principles
because freedom of expression, the right to dissent especially, each day must
face and prevail over the power of government, the will of the majority and the
passions of the moment.

With such powerful forces arrayed against it, dissent also requires the
protection of an independent judiciary and an informed public.

The more unpopular the protest, the more our commitment to the First
Amendment is tested. When we’re tested, we’re reminded of the menace to
democracy and freedom posed by what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis termed
“silence coerced by law.”

The First Amendment is important, not only because it protects our rights,
but also because it gives us the courage to fight for what can be ours if we
dare claim it: freedom from fear, the freedom to speak and the right to

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment
Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.