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A moment of silence for the First Amendment

Thursday, September 05, 2002

You may have seen the item yesterday about demonstrators against President Bush being herded inside a fence at Neville Island for his Labor Day visit.

Police called this enclosure the designated free-speech area, though anyone who had signs praising the president was evidently OK to line the island's main street for the motorcade.

The mini-Guantanamo on the Ohio was set up strictly for security reasons, of course. Those who pose a genuine threat to the president are expected to carry signs identifying themselves as such, as a courtesy. Hence the erection of the Not-OK Corral.

Bill Neel of Butler just doesn't get it, though. He's 65 and can remember a time when our entire country was a free-speech zone. So when he refused to get inside the fence with his sign, he was arrested, cuffed and detained in the best place for inflammatory rhetoric, the fire hall.

Neel's confiscated sign said, "The Bushes must truly love the poor -- they've made so many of us." For holding this contrary opinion in the censored speech zone, Neel was given a summons for disorderly conduct.

I called the Neville Township office yesterday, but the zoning code official was out, so I can't tell you what percentage of the island is zoned industrial, what percentage is residential and what percentage is for free speech. But I expect Neville is on the cutting edge of the new American order.

That is unless those spoilsports at the American Civil Liberties Union make trouble. You know they will, too. They're all "constitutional rights this" and "Bill of Rights that" whenever police try to do something innovative like deciding what's OK to say on a particular day and what's not.

Wouldn't it be great to live in a country where we didn't have to worry about such old-fashioned cranks? Where people who said things we found annoying were required to get permission from the government first? There are other countries with such progressive notions. They generally have phrases like "People's Republic" in their names somewhere, to reassure the populace.

The difficulty for police now is how hazy the rules remain. It was a relatively easy call to have the lady with the "Hello, George" sign remain for the motorcade. But what if the sign had said "Wazzup, Prez?" Or "Welcome, Shrub"? Where should the line be drawn?

And what are the police supposed to do if chanting breaks out from people who haven't the courtesy to carry signs identifying themselves as protesters? It's often hard to decipher a chant the first time you hear one. What can at first sound like "The president's on a roll" might actually be "The deficit's out of control."

Can we afford to have ordinary citizens showing up and speaking out like that when the commander-in-chief is in town? To put that another way, do the current restrictions go far enough?

County Police Superintendent Ken Fulton said he was just following orders. The U.S. Secret Service has certain rules. If the charge of disorderly conduct against Neel is thrown out by the district justice, as it may well be, given even the lowest American court's attachment to the U.S. Constitution, the local constabulary will not lose any sleep.

Order was kept. Even if what happened to Neel is shown to be illegal, his protest was snuffed. All police had to do was put a temporary fence around freedom. We can always get that back later, can't we?

Brian O'Neill's can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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