A Whisper in the Night
When I was in college I saw a very disturbing thing.
You see, my minor was in Journalism and part of my job was filling in when some people in the school’s paper weren’t able to cover an event (it’s how I got a one-on-one interview with a Senator after he announced he was running for Governor). I was the assistant sports editor at the paper (I think it was because nobody wanted to work for the sports editor, who (surprisingly) knew little about sports) so it wasn’t a big deal for me to drop everything in between classes to cover anything exciting that was happening on campus.
And one of the more “exciting” things was when there would be a protest.
Now, I wasn’t a traditional college student and viewed such things as a bunch of whiny kids hoping to score (I was fresh out of the Navy and viewed the world with a jaundiced eye). However, it was my job to cover the event and, armed with a photographer (nice kid, kinda artsy and flaky, but he had a good eye for angles), we traversed the wild frontier to watch these kids protest… something. I think they were protesting against Pres. Bush and his policies but, since it was barely a year after 9/11, I don’t entirely remember. Maybe us bombing the poor Taliban?
Anyway, as we arrived on site (by the way, this was a very liberal state school, so don’t think I went to some bible-thumping college. Nope, state school for me) I noticed that the campus police had cordoned off the area with police tape and a wall of (slightly flabby) police officers.
Hmm… I remember thinking. Sh*t’s about to get real.
However, the protesters were fairly peaceful (except for one girl, who really wanted to be arrested while the press was there taking pictures. It was strange) and pretty orderly. I was annoyed because the police presence suggested that a riot was brewing. So I turned to one of the officers in charge (a captain, methinks) and asked him why the heavy police turnout for such a small protest (it was maybe 300 people).
“They have to stay in their Free Speech Zone. If they breech that, I will arrest them.”
(the above quote, by the way, got me an honorable mention for an award and a scholarship from the CJCC)
Now, I’d just got out of the Navy about 18 months before, so my mindset wasn’t entirely civilian yet (still isn’t), and I’d never heard of a “Free Speech Zone” before. In fact, I didn’t know that anyone could do such a thing. I tried asking a few more questions but he must have realized he’d already said too much and didn’t answer. So I tried to find the “Free Speech Zone” and, with my trustee photographer (who was now scared sh*tless because of how many police were there and was convinced that his mom was going to kill him), we entered “The Zone”.
It was a square, marked with yellow and black paint on the ground, and said “Free Speech Zone”. It was away from the main campus a bit, away from parking and all major streets, and was tiny. Like, very tiny. Small enough that I soon realized that no more than 400 people could fit into that tiny little space. This was where Free Speech was allowed, apparently. It was designed to be small, innocuous, hidden and away from places where it could disrupt things — like classes. It was designed to prevent any sort of mass protest which, on the surface, seems fine.
I’ve mentioned before that the first two Amendments are my favorites (the Fourth is also up there, but for different reasons). The right to free speech (and peaceably assemble) and the right to bear arms are two of the most useful items a populace can have against any tyrannical government. Both sides of the political spectrum scream about one another but really, these two go arm in arm with one another and should be cherished by all. The right to publicly address the wrongs of your government is not something that the government should be able to deny you. The government should not be able to paint little marks on the ground and say “Yes, you can protest and publicly announce your grievances. But it has to be here. Anywhere else, we’ll arrest you.”
Unfortunately, our president (who is supposed to be a Constitutional scholar, but I’m starting to think that this is a new term used for finding ways around said Constitution) signed into law (very quietly and over a year ago) something which severely limits the First Amendment. A law which was written by a Republican-controlled House and affirmed by a Democratic-controlled Senate.
Combined with the expansion of the PATRIOT Act, I guess nobody can say any more that the two parties can’t work together. At least, when it comes to securing their own power.
This law (H.R. 347, also called the Trespass Law) is horribly written and will allow law enforcement to become over-zealous when enforcing this. You think I’m exaggerating, then think about how many S.W.A.T. raids have gone wrong in the past ten years (using local and municipal variations of the PATRIOT Act). How many innocent people have been denied due process and accidentally shot and killed during a drug bust… which occurred at the wrong address. How many people still truly believe that you are “innocent until proven guilty”? The real answer? Not many.
So now, in what was once a great and proud nation, we have written and enacted so many poorly-worded laws that they no longer function as they’re supposed to. Laws are not meant to protect those in power and yet, they only seem to benefit them. You think I’m kidding?
Okay, fine, then answer me this: what’s the punishment for insider trading? (Up to 20 years in prison, and upwards of a $5 million fine)
Now, if you’re a member of Congress, what’s the punishment? (Thanks to the recent revisions to the STOCK Act, not even a slap on the wrist)
Uh huh. As I was saying…
But on that day, over ten years ago, in a small Free Speech Zone painted on the ground at a school known for being kind of “weird”, nobody was hurt or arrested (even crazy girl wasn’t). I’m thankful for that, even to this day. But I still think back to that day when, as a 24 year old, I realized that our rights were slowly being eroded away.
Subtly, quietly, but irrevocably gone. Like a whisper in the night.