The Bill of Rights, we like to imagine, is much like a razor-wire fence. It shields the sacred ground of U.S. liberty from profane government intrusion -- giving citizens ample room to live and speak as they wish without worrying about incurring official wrath. So Americans like to think, but the fence metaphor isn't as apt as they might prefer.
To law enforcement, the Constitution's promises aren't regarded as constraints to be honored as much as challenges to be circumvented. How else to explain the FBI's many recent visits to citizens it thinks may show up to protest at the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York?
Protest is an American tradition -- as old and as esteemed as the Boston Tea Party. The practice offers citizens an open avenue for expression -- one that has often worked to alter the course of history. Protest has been known to end wars, topple administrations and hound heedless leaders to yield to popular will.
Indeed, it's hard to think of anything bad to say about the strategy -- except that it asks a lot of those who undertake it, and can occasionally inject disorder into public gatherings. That's why police are obliged to ensure that the right to protest doesn't unduly interfere with the right to assemble. Their tricky task is to see that both public meetings and public protests can coexist -- even if the result is just a bit sloppy.
But assuring that protests don't turn violent doesn't grant law-enforcers unlimited authority to dictate the terms of protest -- and plainly doesn't entitle them to bully would-be protesters into skipping a protest event altogether. Yet this sort of tactic has become commonplace of late -- most recently at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Protesters there indeed did encounter a razor-wire fence -- but found that police had erected it to pen them in, not to safeguard their rights. As has often occurred during public appearances of President Bush during his term, protesters found themselves confined beyond the hearing of participants in the event they came to comment upon.
There's no doubt that police have some latitude to dictate where and how protesters can express themselves. Sometimes setting such rules is the only way to assure that important public business can be conducted without ceaseless disruption. But though protesters can't claim an absolute right to protest whenever and wherever they wish, they are entitled to be heard by their desired audience. Penning them up beyond the sight and hearing of the people they seek to influence is much like letting them speak their piece in a locked boxcar miles from the action.
But as Monday's New York Times notes, law enforcement is no longer limiting itself to such crude protest-containment measures. A surer strategy is to scare would-be protesters from showing up at a political event in the first place. This seems to be the idea behind a recent rash of FBI visits to citizens who may be planning to participate in protests at the GOP convention starting Aug. 30.
FBI investigators deny any wish to silence lawful dissent. Their sole purpose, they insist, is to avert possible violence by protesters in New York. But their door-knocking campaign has worked well to intimidate Bush opponents who had been inclined to join convention protests. As one woman visited by six FBI agents a few weeks back told the Times, the agents were trying "to let us know that 'hey, we're watching you.' "
What's wrong with being watched? Nothing, unless you believe the Constitution's free-expression guarantee means what it says. The assurance conveys no mere suggestion to government, but an absolute obligation: It must bow to citizens' rights to say what they wish, to whom they wish, where they wish. Anything that dampens, muffles or muzzles such protest flouts the most fundamental of American promises.
© 2004 Star Tribune.