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A Lesson on Protest From the 1980 Olympics

by Michael A. Kroll

The hoopla in San Francisco surrounding the forthcoming Olympic torch runner and the promised demonstrations focused on China's human rights abuses reminded me of an earlier Olympic protest against human rights abuses - except those abuses were far closer to home.

In 1980, the Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, N.Y. As the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) contemplated housing the large number of athletes, they went to Congress asking for federal money to build temporary quarters. Congress responded that the federal government was not in the business of providing public money for private enterprises, and advised that if the committee could suggest a permanent public after-use, then the money might be forthcoming.

In record time - working closely with the Federal Bureau of Prisons - the USOC came up with their suggested "public" after-use: a new federal prison. Without the congressional oversight that had always been required for such a massive project, Congress appropriated the money, borrowed a blueprint from an existing federal prison complex, clear-cut a large swath of forest between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, and construction began.

At that time, I coordinated a project from Washington, D.C. ,called the National Moratorium on Prison Construction. Along with affiliate groups, we launched a campaign to focus attention on the inhumanity of using U.S. tax dollars to pay for a temporary "Olympic Village" - complete with discothèque, movie theater, fancy food services and many other amenities - for the 1,100, mostly white, European athletes, which later would become a permanent prison complex of young, mostly black and Latino men from the urban centers of New York City and Philadelphia.

We called our campaign Stop The Olympic Prison (S.T.O.P.), and we designed a poster showing a black arm thrust through the Olympic rings under the slogan, Stop The Olympic Prison ( www.docspopuli.org/articles/STOP/STOP.html ).

Soon, we received a letter from the USOC threatening to sue us for copyright infringement. Instead, we sued the USOC for an "anticipatory breach" of our First Amendment rights. Just before the Games began, a federal judge ruled in our favor, noting that there was little likelihood of anyone confusing our poster with the corporate goals of the Olympic Committee.

But then came the Olympic torch run through the streets of Washington and onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol. On the morning of that Senate-sponsored welcoming ceremony (to which the public had been invited), I arrived with a banner: "Olympic Torch = Freedom, Olympic Prison = Slavery." I stood at the back of the crowd so as not to obstruct anyone's view, and raised the banner.

Soon, a Capitol Hill Police captain approached and inquired if I had a permit to demonstrate. I answered that I did not, but asked if the many others in the crowd with signs welcoming the torch runner had permits. The captain told me they did not, but that my sign was "not in the spirit of the ceremony," and ordered me to put it down.

I replied that I believed the First Amendment protected my speech, and that if he arrested me, I would sue. Again, he ordered me to relinquish the banner. Again, I refused. Two other officers then arrested me. I was released some hours after the ceremony ended, and the charges were dropped. I sued.

While our campaign to Stop The Olympic Prison was unsuccessful (today, more than 1,200 young men are incarcerated there), my lawsuit succeeded. The result may be instructive both for those contemplating how they might express their opposition to the upcoming Olympic Games in China, and for the government that hopes to impose "time, place and manner" restrictions on such demonstrations. In a word, what my case determined is that where there is "no obstruction of pedestrian or vehicular traffic" by a single demonstrator (who does) "not threaten or provoke violence," there is no right to impose the kinds of restrictions allowed on larger, organized gatherings.

San Francisco officials might also want to consider this from the court's decision: "Freedom of expression would not truly exist if the right could be exercised only in an area that a benevolent government has provided as a safe haven for crackpots." (That would be me...) "(W)e do not confine the permissible exercise of First Amendment rights to a telephone booth or the four corners of a pamphlet..."

A word to the wise...

New America Media contributor Michael A. Kroll is the founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

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