Thursday, October 08, 2009

Tweeting yourself to jail

There was a fellow named Madison (there’s the beginning of a limerick in there somewhere, Spot thinks) who was part of the protests at the recent G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Apparently, he was arrested for tweeting “confidential information” about the movements of the police. Laying aside for a moment how police movements, taking place in front of anybody who cared to look, can be “confidential,” Scott Horton has it right when he calls the charge creepy:

But there’s another parallel here that can only serve to heighten the concerns of those who see evidence of a creeping National Security State. Mr. Madison was doing precisely what the protesters in Tehran did throughout the Green Revolution—as Western leaders, including many of those assembled at the G-20 in Pittsburgh, saluted their heroism. The police’s efforts to criminalize tweeting looks downright creepy and rests on the constitutionally suspicious assumption that police’s movements, like military maneuvers in wartime, are entitled to some sort of national security protection. That’s just the sort of reasoning we would expect of Ahmadinejad and his thugs. But an American police force? I for one hope these charges aren’t dropped. It’s time for these police tactics to be tested against the Constitution, by a judge who is sworn to uphold it.

By saying he hoped that the charges wouldn’t be dropped, he was comparing the situation in Pittsburgh to the RNC here in the Twin Cities last summer, where the charges against virtually all of the protesters have been dropped or dismissed. Horton also says this about the increasing overreaction by police at public events:

The fundamental problem is that the priorities of the police are being perverted. They should ensure the safety and security of the meetings they are deployed to protect. But they also have a duty to protect the free speech rights of ordinary citizens and to separate them from the troublemakers. This is the duty that is being abdicated.

RNC police To be sure, it isn’t only local police; law enforcement at events like the RNC and the G-20 is heavily influenced by – probably effectively directed by – the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI as well as other enforcement agencies.

Freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition government for a redress of grievances are First Amendment rights, too. And shunting off protesters to stand in a chained off area or making them march through a blocks-long cattle chute, as was done at the RNC, really won’t do. In reviewing a recent book, Speech Out of Doors, Jerome O'Callaghan, writing in Law and Politics Book Review, observed:

Try to imagine the reasons why Martin L. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech of August, 1963 holds such a revered place in American cultural and political history. No doubt one reason is the inspired oratory; another is the text; another is the author. Beyond all that is the size of the crowd, the immediate context of other civil rights protests, and, last but not least, is the location: Washington, D.C.’s National Mall. There are few, if any, more fitting sites for a civil rights event of that magnitude. Would the speech have been the same if delivered outside Union Station in Los Angeles, or at Pike Place Market in Seattle? As Timothy Zick suggests in his new volume, SPEECH OUT OF DOORS, the very meaning of a public speech derives in good part from its location.

The point is not that all protest should take place on the National Mall. The point is that protest is the most powerful when it takes place in front of the decision makers: at the RNC, or at the G-20 conference, or any place that George W. Bush spoke at for eight years and virtually all assembly was prohibited.

People old enough to remember the protests of of the civil rights era and against the Vietnam war will tell you about the difference between the power of exercising the rights of assembly and petition then and now.

A thump of the tail to Professor Brian Tamanaha at Balkinization.

Reuters photo

No comments: