Today marks the 50th anniversary of “Blood Sunday”, the day when civil rights demonstrators marching from Selma to Montgomery were set upon by a law-enforcement organized mob at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. There’s a lot to say about it, including the lame-brained decision of GOP leaders to not attend. But one thing really jumped out at me looking at all the grandstanding politicians.
There is no way a Selma protest would be allowed today:
Today, it would be impossible to obtain a federal court order permitting a five-day protest march on a 52-mile stretch of a major U.S. highway. Under contemporary legal doctrine, the Selma protests would have ended March 8, 1965.
Starting in the 1970s, however, the federal courts began rolling back this idea. A series of rulings erected what is known as the public forum doctrine, which lets a city, state or the federal government decide whether public property can be used for 1st Amendment activities. It also means that if courts do not designate a place a “traditional public forum,” government may forbid its use as a site of protest altogether.
Under this doctrine, the federal government has completely banned large protests at Mt. Rushmore and the Jefferson Memorial.
In fact, a few years ago, a bunch of people were arrested for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial, a decisions the Courts upheld. I can’t imagine what Jefferson, a staunch advocate of free speech, would have said about it.
Even in traditional public forums, government may strictly regulate the time, place and manner of speech activity. The National Park Service, for example, has created “free speech areas” and limited protests to them. Predictably, the federal courts have sustained this policy.
Likewise, local, state and federal governments have banned dissent near major political events, such as the presidential nominating conventions.
Protesters are relegated to “designated speech zones,” sometimes blocks or miles from the venue. The federal courts have sustained such regulations as justifiable security measures. The purpose and effect of these regulations, however, is to render the protesters invisible.
Krotosyznski goes on to note the crackdown on the peaceful side of the Ferguson protesters, which included firing tear gas at people standing on their own lawns. The courts belatedly decided that this violated the free speech rights of the protesters, but it was long past. Whether the Ferguson protests had merit or not, given the DOJ reports, is kind of beside the point. The point is that kind of heavy-handed response has become routine for protests that do not have official government sanction.
Many of the Tea Party protests got permission for their activities, but sometimes only after delays and only in designated areas. And the idea that the Tea Party need permission to oppose government policy is fundamentally ridiculous.
So, yeah, follow the commemorations of the Selma march today. But remember that every single one of those politicians speaking about Dr. King’s courage would have shut him down in a heartbeat today. Because for worshippers of government power, no matter what their political persuasion, dissenters are a problem, not something to be proud of. They are only something to be proud of decades after the fact.