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irregular times logoNew York City's Small Speech Ordinance Keeps Protest Minimal

-- July 2004 --

In the American city best known for unrestrained self-expression, free speech has been reduced to a whisper. Even as the Republicans are preparing to hold their huge national convention in Manhattan, the New York City government has told peace activists that they have no right to meet and protest the Republicans' pro-war agenda. United for Peace and Justice had planned a anti-war protest with an estimated quarter of a million Americans, but now they are having to file an appeal in order to prevent their protest from being prohibited out of existence.

The New York City Parks Department's excuse for outlawing the peaceful protest: Too many Americans wanted to participate. New York City officials said that a protest could only take place if it were small enough not to have much impact. The city complained that the anti-war rally would cause too much trouble for Central Park groundskeepers. They said it might "cause damage to the lawn".

The city government's ban on effective protest relies upon the twisted logic of Homeland Security to turn the Bill of Rights upside down. The freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly were granted in the Bill of Rights to ensure that the people would have the power to act in defiance of a government that had abused its authority. These freedoms were not restricted to small groups or deferred according to the convenience of local governments.

What if the New York City government's standards were followed nationwide? Americans could only protest up to a point. When the government's actions disturbed a small minority of citizens, they would be free to speak up. However, when the government's actions became so heinous that large numbers of Americans decided to join in protest, their freedom to do so would be eliminated.

In this way, New York City's ban on large demonstrations sets a threshold for an automatic institution of a state of emergency that has nothing to do with genuine threats to the nation and everything to do with the strengthening of an unpopular government. Such a system threatens to catalyze a downward spiral of persecution of dissent, diving straight down towards to totalitarianism. The government would become less and less under the control of average citizens the more extreme it became. Without popular protest as a check, there would be little way to preserve those constitutional freedoms that remained. The sacrifice of one freedom would lead to the escalating slaughter of the rest.

The restriction of the size of this pro-peace protest is strange given New York City's huge population. The city manages the movement of millions of people every day. Would the presence of an additional 250,000 cause such a problem? There would be frustrations to be sure, but for new yorkers, frustrations are a part of life. The city has hosted many large events before. One concert by Simon and Garfunkel brought out 400,000 people, and New York City survived. With a long history of big crowds, New York City's rejection of a peaceful protest seems to be motivated more by politics than practical considerations.

In the end, the choice that New York City has to make is between preserving freedom of speech and keeping the grass nice and tidy. So far, the Republican city government has chosen a nice lawn. If this choice is not reconsidered in time for protests of the Republican convention to take place, it will only be a confirmation of the reckless sacrifice of liberty over which the Republicans have presided.

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