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Chalk Another One Up to Free Speech Hypocrisy

(Photo via "Chalk-U-Py San Diego 2013" on Facebook)Corporate media coverage of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has enjoyed the supposed irony of his reportedly seeking asylum in Ecuador, a country that U.S. journalists depict as failing to measure up to their standards of freedom.

"Should Snowden eventually land in Ecuador, he'll find that the host government is hardly a champion of free expression," asserted Cristina Lindblad of Bloomberg BusinessWeek (6/24/13).

"Others saw hypocrisy in a possible offer of asylum by a government that has aggressively pursued critics in the press for perceived slights and recently passed a media law that some call an assault on freedom of speech," reported AP (6/24/13)

"Clearly Ecuador isn't the logical, legitimate champion of freedom of expression globally," declared Christopher Sabatini of Fox News Latino (6/28/13), in a piece headlined "Ecuador and Snowden: Really?"

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (Guardian6/27/13) points out there is, actually, a considerable amount of free expression in Ecuador:

Without defending everything that exists in Ecuador, including criminal libel laws and some vague language in a new communications law, anyone who has been to the country knows that the international media has presented a gross caricature of the state of press freedom there. The Ecuadorian private media is more oppositional than that of the U.S., trashing the government every day.

It does seem inadequate for U.S. media outlets to critique the level  of free expression in the country where Snowden is seeking asylum without comparing it to the level of free expression in the country he is seeking asylum from. While the United States has on paper some of the best guarantees of the right to speak in the world, its practice is considerably more chilling.

The U.S. military has repeatedly targeted and killed journalists, claiming that reporters are legitimate targets. Washington imprisoned Al-Jazeera camera operator Sami al-Hajj for six years without a trial at Guantanamo; documents released through WikiLeaks later revealed that a primary reason for holding al-Hajj was to try to extract information from him about Al-Jazeera's newsgathering operations. When Yemen was about to release Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a journalist who had reported on the U.S.'s secret drone war in that country, Barack Obama personally intervened to make sure Shaye stayed in prison.

The Obama administration is increasingly trying to criminalize the release information the government wants kept secret to the press–and has indicated that reporting on such information is a crime as well.

Those are some of the big things the U.S. does to silence journalism it doesn't like. But you might get a better sense of the state of free expression in the USA from a smaller case that illustrates how far we've come from the idea that citizens have a right to let their voices be heard: the case of chalk activist Jeff Olson.

Olson has reportedly admitted writing messages in chalk on sidewalks around Bank of America offices in San Diego, protesting the bank's role in the financial crisis and urging consumers to move their money into credit unions. For this, San Diego city attorney Jan Goldsmith has brought vandalism charges against Olson that carry a potential sentence of 13 years in jail (San Diego Reader 6/23/13). 

The city attorney's office wanted to make it clear that it would not be arresting kids for playing hopscotch: "The People do not fear that this reading of section 594(A) will make criminals of every child using chalk. Chalk festivals may still be permitted. Kids acting without malice may still engage in their art." "Without malice," in this context, means "without political intent"; the city is more or less boasting here that Olson is being punished for the content of his speech–a clear violation of the First Amendment, right?

It doesn't matter, because the judge in Olson's case, Howard Shore, has declared his courtroom to be a First Amendment-free zone–granting a prosecutorial motion to forbid Olson from citing in his defense the phrases "First Amendment," "free speech," "free expression," "public forum," "expressive conduct" or "political speech." "The State's Vandalism Statute does not mention First Amendment rights," Shore ruled (San Diego Reader, 6/25/13).

Just in case he hadn't trampled the right to free expression enough, Shore later imposed a gag order on Olson, barring him from talking to the media about his case (San Diego Reader, 6/27/13). So in the United States, you can be banned from complaining that you've been forbidden to argue that being threatened with 13 years in prison for expressing your opinion with chalk is a violation of your free speech rights.

Sounds like something commentators in the official Chinese media should bring up next time a dissident seeks asylum in the U.S. It would make for some excellent propaganda.

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Daily Kos has a petition calling on the San Diego city attorney to drop the absurd charges against chalk activist Jeff Olson. Judge Howard Shore has so far been unable to suspend the right to petition for redress of grievances.

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