Bush Zones Go National

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Bush Zones Go National

The Creation of "Free-Speech Zones"

Magazine article

By: Jim Hightower

Date: August 16, 2004

Source: Hightower, Jim. "Bush Zones Go National." The Nation. August 16, 2004.

About the Author: Jim Hightower (1943–) is a columnist, political commentator, and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner.


The term "free-speech zone" (or "protest zone" or similar terms) refers to a fenced-in or otherwise restricted area in which people are required to stay if they wish to speak critically of an event or person, display signs, and the like. Usually, a free-speech zone is remote from travel routes, convention centers, or other locations where protestors congregate to be seen and heard. Proponents of such zones argue that they are necessary to protect prominent persons from possible attack, or (in the case of university-campus zones) to enable speakers to express themselves without interruption. Critics argue that the real goal of establishing free-speech zones is to shield controversial persons from dissent. If enforced selectively against those expressing negative rather than positive ideas, free-speech zones may also be used to create, for the benefit of television cameras, the appearance of uniformly enthusiastic crowds greeting a political figure such as the President; only welcoming signs will be visible.

When a free-speech zone is designated by a law enforcement agency, protesting outside the zone can result in arrest, fine, and imprisonment. When they are designated by a university, protest may result in institutional disciplinary action.

Free-speech zones appear to have first been designated on university campuses in the late 1980s. These early zones were not physically caged or fenced, but consisted of officially designated protest areas outside which protestors were asked not to stray. In the 1990s, selective permit issuing was used by the administration of President Bill Clinton on at least one occasion; members of the Christian Defense Coalition, a pro-life group, were denied permits to picket during the 1996 Clinton inaugural parade, although Clinton supporters were allowed to demonstrate. The practice of physically fenced-in or caged holding areas for free speech appeared after 2001, when designation of free-speech zones during public appearances became routine during the administration of President George W. Bush.


Bush Zones Go National

At the 2000 GOP nominating convention in Philadelphia, candidate Bush created a fenced-in, out-of-sight protest zone that could only hold barely 1,500 people at a time. So citizens who wished to give voice to their many grievances with the Powers That Be had to:

  1. Schedule their exercise of First Amendment rights with the decidedly unsympathetic authorities.
  2. Report like cattle to the protest pen at their designated time, and only in the numbers authorized.
  3. Then, under the recorded surveillance of the authorities, feel free to let loose with all the speech they could utter within their allotted minutes (although no one—not Bush, not convention delegates, not the preening members of Congress, not the limousine-gliding corporate sponsors, and certainly not the mass media—would be anywhere nearby to hear a single word of what they had to say).

Imagine how proud the Founders would be of this interpretation of their revolutionary work. The Democrats, always willing to learn useful tricks from the opposition, created their own "free-speech zone" when they gathered in Los Angeles that year for their convention.

Once ensconced in the White House, the Bushites institutionalized the art of dissing dissent, routinely dispatching the Secret Service to order local police to set up FSZs to quarantine protesters wherever Bush goes. The embedded media trooping dutifully behind him almost never cover this fascinating and truly newsworthy phenomenon, instead focusing almost entirely on spoon-fed soundbites from the President's press office.

An independent libertarian writer, however, James Bovard, chronicled George's splendid isolation from citizen protest in last December's issue of The American Conservative (www.amconmag.com). He wrote about Bill Neel, a retired steelworker who dared to raise his humble head at a 2002 Labor Day picnic in Pittsburgh, where Bush had gone to be photographed with worker-type people. Bill definitely did not fit the message of the day, for this sixty-five-year-old was sporting a sign that said: The Bush Family Must Surely Love the Poor, They Made so Many of Us.

Ouch! Negative! Not acceptable! Must go!

Bill was standing in a crowd of pro-Bush people who were standing along the street where Bush's motorcade would pass. The Bush backers had all sorts of Hooray George-type signs. Those were totally okey-dokey with the Secret Service, but Neel's … well, it simply had to be removed.

He was told by the Pittsburgh cops to depart to the designated FSZ, a ballpark encased in a chain-link fence a third of a mile from Bush's (and the media's) path. Bill, that rambunctious rebel, refused to budge. So they arrested him for disorderly conduct, dispatched him to the luxury of a Pittsburgh jail, and confiscated his offending sign.

At Bill's trial, a Pittsburgh detective testified that the Secret Service had instructed local police to confine "people that were making a statement pretty much against the President and his views." The district court judge not only tossed out the silly charges against Neel but scolded the prosecution: "I believe this is America. Whatever happened to 'I don't agree with you, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it?"

This was no isolated incident. Bovard also takes us to St. Louis, where George appeared last year. About 150 sign-toting protesters were shunted off to a zone where they could not be seen from the street, and—get ready to spin in your grave, Jimmy Madison—the media were not allowed to talk to them, and protesters were not allowed out of the protest zone to talk to the media.

Now meet Brett Bursey. He committed the crime of holding up a No War for Oil sign when sensitive George visited Columbia, South Carolina, last year. Standing amid a sea of pro-Bush signs in a public area, Bursey was commanded by local police to remove himself forthwith to the FSZ half a mile away from the action, even though he was already two football fields from where Bush was to speak. No, said Brett. So, naturally, they arrested him. Asked why, the officer said, "It's the content of your sign that's the problem."

Five months later, Brett's trespassing charge was tossed on the rather obvious grounds that—yoo-hoo!—there's no such thing as a member of the public trespassing on public property at a public event. But John Ashcroft is oblivious to the obvious, so the Justice Department of the United States of America (represented in this case by—can you stand it?—U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr.) inserted itself into this local misdemeanor case, charging our man Brett with a federal violation of "entering a restricted area around the president." Great Goofy in the Sky—he was two hundred yards away, surrounded by cheering Bushcalytes who were also in the "restricted area."

Ashcroft/Thurmond/Bush attempted to deny Bursey's lawyers access to Secret Service documents setting forth official policy on who gets stopped for criticizing the President, where, when and why. But Bursey finally obtained the documents and posted them on the South Carolina Progressive Network website, www.scpronet.com; they reveal that what the Secret Service did goes against official policy.

Then there's the "Crawford Contretemps." In May of 2003, a troupe of about one hundred antiwar Texans were on their way by car to George W's Little Ponderosa, located about five miles outside the tiny town of Crawford. To get to Bush's place, one drives through the town—but the traveling protesters were greeted by a police blockade. They got out of their cars to find out what was up, only to be told by Police Chief Donnie Tidmore that they were violating a town ordinance requiring a permit to protest within the city limits.

But wait, they said, we're on our way to Bush's ranchette— we have no intention of protesting here. Logic was a stranger that day in Crawford, however, and Chief Tidmore warned them that they had three minutes to turn around and go back from whence they came, or else they'd be considered a demonstration, and, he reminded them, they had no permit for that. (Tidmore later said that he actually gave them seven minutes to depart, in order to be "as fair as possible.").

Five of the group tried to talk sense with Tidmore, but that was not possible. Their reward for even trying was to be arrested for refusing to disperse and given a night in the nearby McLennan County jail. The chief said he could've just given them a ticket, but he judged that arresting them was the only way to get them to move, claiming that they were causing a danger because of the traffic.

This February, the five were brought to trial in Crawford. Their lawyer asked Tidmore if someone who simply wore a political button reading "Peace" could be found in violation of Crawford's ordinance against protesting without a permit. Yes, said the chief. "It could be a sign of demonstration."

The five were convicted.

The Bushites are using federal, state, and local police to conduct an undeclared war against dissent, literally incarcerating Americans who publicly express their disagreements with him and his policies. The ACLU and others have now sued Bush's Secret Service for its ongoing pattern of repressing legitimate, made-in-America protest, citing cases in Arizona, California, Virginia, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas—and coming soon to a theater near you!

If incarceration is not enough to deter dissenters, how about some old-fashioned goon-squad tactics like infiltration and intimidation of protesters? In May of 2002, Ashcroft issued a decree terminating a quarter-century-old policy that bans FBI agents from spying on Americans in their political meetings and churches.

Not only were federal agents "freed" by Bush and his attack dog Ashcroft to violate the freedoms (assembly, speech, privacy) of any and all citizens, but they were encouraged to do so. This unleashing of the FBI was done in the name of combating foreign terrorists. The Bushites loudly scoffed at complaints that agents would also be used to spy on American citizens for political purposes having nothing to do with terrorism. While officials scoffed publicly, however, an internal FBI newsletter quietly encouraged agents to increase surveillance of antiwar groups, saying that there were "plenty of reasons" for doing so, "chief of which it will enhance the paranoia endemic in such circles and will further service to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."

Likewise, in May of last year, the Homeland Security Department waded butt-deep into the murky waters of political suppression, issuing a terrorist advisory to local law enforcement agencies. It urged all police officials to keep a hawk-eyed watch on any homelanders who [Warning: Do not read the rest of this sentence if it will shock you to learn that there are people like this in your country!] have "expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government."

MEMO TO TOM RIDGE, SECRETARY OF HSD: Sir, that's everyone. All 280 million of us, minus George Bush, you and the handful of others actually making the decisions. You've just branded every red-blooded American a terrorist. Maybe you should stick to playing with your color codes.

Last November, Ashcroft weighed back in with new federal guidelines allowing the FBI to make what amount to pre-emptive spying assaults on people. Much like the nifty Bush-Rumsfeld doctrine of attacking countries to preempt the possibility that maybe, someday, some way, those countries might pose a threat to the United States, the Bush-Ashcroft doctrine allows government gumshoes to spy on citizens and noncitizens alike without any indication that the spied-upon people are doing anything illegal. The executive directive gives the FBI authority to collect "information on individuals, groups, and organizations of possible investigative interest."

The language used by Ashcroft mouthpiece Mark Corallo to explain this directive is meant to be reassuring, but it is Orwell-level scary: What it means, says Corallo, is that agents "can do more research." "It emphasizes early intervention" and "allows them to be more proactive." Yeah, they get to do all that without opening a formal investigation (which sets limits on the snooping), much less bothering to get any court approval for their snooping. A proactive secret police is rarely a positive for people.

With the FBI on the loose, other police powers now feel free to join in the all-season sport of intimidating people. In Austin, even the Army was caught snooping on us. At a small University of Texas conference in February to discuss Islam in Muslim countries, two Army officers were discovered to be posing as participants. The next week, two agents from the Army Intelligence and Security Command appeared on campus demanding a list of participants and trying to grill Sahar Aziz, the conference organizer. Alarmed by these intimidating tactics, Aziz got the help of a lawyer, and the local newspaper ran a story. The Army quickly went away—but a spokeswoman for the intelligence command refused even to confirm that the agents had been on campus, much less discuss why the U.S. Army is involved in domestic surveillance and intimidation.

In California, an antiwar group called Peace Fresno included in its ranks a nice young man named Aaron Stokes, who was always willing to be helpful. Unfortunately, Aaron died in a motorcycle wreck, and when his picture ran in the paper, Peace Fresno learned that he was really Aaron Kilner, a deputy with the sheriff's department. The sheriff said he could not discuss the specifics of Kilner's infiltration role, but that there was no formal investigation of Peace Fresno under way. He did insist, however, that there is potential for terrorism in Fresno County. "We believe that there is," the sheriff said ominously (and vaguely). "I'm not goingtoexpand on it."

If the authorities think there is terrorist potential in Fresno (probably not real high on Osama's target list), then there is potential everywhere, and under the Bush regime, this is plenty enough reason for any and all police agencies to launch secret campaigns to infiltrate, investigate, and intimidate any and all people and groups with politics that they find even mildly suspicious … or distasteful.

The attitude of police authorities was summed up by Mike van Winkle, a spokesperson for the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center (another spinoff of the Homeland Security Department—your tax dollars at work). After peaceful antiwar protesters in Oakland were gassed and shot by local police, van Winkle [Note: I do not make up these names] explained the prevailing thinking of America's new, vast network of antiterrorist forces: You can make an easy kind of link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act. I've heard terrorism described as anything that is violent or has an economic impact. Terrorism isn't just bombs going off and killing people.


Today, free-speech zones arranged for political events or figures usually consist of small, fenced-in—sometimes completely caged-in—areas located distantly from the activity or person to be shielded. Organizers of the event or, in the case of a Presidential or Vice-Presidential visit, the Secret Service (charged with protecting the President and Vice President) contact local police forces, usually city police, who then build and primarily enforce the free-speech zone. Alternatively, Secret Service personnel may enforce the Zone directly.

The American Civil Liberties Union has alleged a large number of cases involving the selective herding of negative demonstrators into free-speech zones, or away from the President or other powerful persons. In one case (partly described in the primary source), a protestor named Brett Bursey was arrested in Columbia, South Carolina in October, 2002 for refusing to leave a rally for President Bush at a public airport and go to a fenced protest zone or free-speech zone half a mile away. "I told the police that I was in a free-speech zone called the United States of America," Bursey said. He was found guilty by a Federal judge and fined $500 (although he could have received six months in jail and a $5,000 fine). Bursey's case was heard in the Fourth Circuit Federal Appeals court by a three-judge panel, but in May 2005, that court upheld his conviction. In January 2006, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, allowing Bursey's conviction to stand.

Not all free-speech zones have been created to protect Republican political figures; one of the most notorious zones was created for the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July, 2004. The city police created a free-speech zone under an abandoned elevated train line, made from chain-link fencing, razor wire, black plastic sheeting, and concrete highway barriers. The zone contained no sanitary facilities, tables and chairs were not allowed inside, and the area was only large enough for about one thousand protestors. It was not only fenced in, but also roofed over with plastic netting and razor wire.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against the legality of the zone. The Federal judge in the case declared that the fenced-in area was a "festering boil," and after a tour of the site said, "I at first thought, before taking a view, that the characterization of the space as being like a concentration camp was litigation hyperbole. I now believe that it's an under-statement. One cannot conceive of what other elements you would put in place to make a space more of an affront to the idea of free expression." Nevertheless, the judge refused to order any changes in the arrangement. According to the Chicago Tribune newspaper, convention organizers argued that the free-speech zone was "necessary to prevent protesters from hurling objects at delegates arriving at the Fleet Center."

Despite repugnance across the political spectrum for the idea of restricting free speech, no major legal victories have been won against the practice of confining protestors to free-speech zones.



Bovard, James. "Free-Speech Zone": The Administration Quarantines Dissent." The American Conservative. December 15, 2003.

Eaton, Leslie. "Aftereffects: Questions of Security and Free Speech." The New York Times. April 27, 2003.

Jones, Tim. "Free-speech zone" Far From It, Protestors Say." The Chicago Tribune. July 25, 2004.

Web sites

American Civil Liberties Union. "Free Speech Under Fire: The ACLU Challenge to 'Protest Zones.'" September 23, 2003. <http://www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/11419res20030923.html> (accessed May 23, 2006).