Taking speech seriously

The presidential campaign train has long since left New Hampshire and is racing toward Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, minus several of the hopefuls who had been visiting New Hampshire and Iowa often in the past several months, confident they were on their way to the White House. We wish them well with their alternate plans.

Along the way, the freedom of speech has been exercised in numerous ways, most of them lawful. The exceptions was the extremely questionable treatment of the anti-abortion folks who got arrested for blocking the entrance to the campaign headquarters of Rudy Giuliani, the one explicitly pro-choice candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

Still, there were demonstrations for every cause and almost every candidacy imaginable during the presidential primary campaign. Some were accompanied by a circus-like atmosphere, but the give-and-take reflected quite well upon the freedom of speech and the right of the people to peacefully assemble and seek redress of grievances guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

There was one other notable exception. At Saint Anselm College – as the site of the Jan. 5 debates, the center of the political universe days before the primary – those freedoms had contracted a bit as the campaign wore on.

For the June 3 and June 5 candidate forums held last year, demonstrators were allowed to congregate in the parking lot near the ice arena where the events were being staged. For the Jan. 5 debates, however, no one was allowed within a quarter of a mile or so of the Dana Center, where the candidates would be arriving and departing. A fenced-in area in a vacant field adjacent to the college library was as close as they were allowed get. Whether or not it was called that, it was, in effect, a “free speech zone.”

That is too bad, because the First Amendment was written to assure that all the United States would be a free speech zone. To be sure, a certain amount of security is needed to ensure the event comes off without interference and with maximum safety for all concerned. But there was no reason peaceful demonstrators at the periphery of Saint Anselm College were forced to picket the college library and the Abbey Church and attached monastery — against which, so far as we know, they had no cause nor grievance.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” seems to be motivating force behind the growing trend toward establishing such “free speech zones” — out of the sight and hearing of the people who are being picketed. People in positions of authority or those running for office should see and hear those people who are or would be affected by their policies.