Street Theater and Civility

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Street Theater and Civility

by Ari Armstrong, October 30, 2006

During Governor Bill Owens's October 27 press conference to denounce Amendment 44, proponents of the measure heckled the speakers and, during the final speech by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, began to chant, "You say drink, we say no, hey hey, ho ho." Suthers soldiered on, raised his voice, and finished his speech with the benefit of a microphone and amplification. The entire event may be heard on audio file. Following Suthers's speech, Owens complained about being "shouted down."

By SAFER's own account, "the crowd did not begin chanting until after Owens and all the sheriffs gave their speeches. While members of the crowd certainly yelled one-liners and booed particular statements... these men were certainly allowed to say what they wanted. However, the chants began as Attorney General John Suthers took to the podium. The proponents and supporters of Amendment 44 simply had no interest in hearing the distortions and lies of this government official, who has been traveling the state peddling such nonsense as the false statement about marijuana and minors from the blue book."

In his October 28 story for the Rocky Mountain News, David Montero writes that, when the "news conference was getting to [the end]... the crowd began chanting..."

An October 28 editorial by the News lambasted the proponents of the measure, calling their behavior a "disgrace" and "a direct assault on the First Amendment." SAFER admits the behavior was perhaps "rude."

I told Mason Tvert, the force behind SAFER, that the chanting was "bad form." He argued that the protesters were merely expressing their equal rights of expression. "We live in a society where we are forwarded the right to express ourselves freely in public, especially when it's in response to distortions by law enforcement, and if they don't understand that then they don't understand the First Amendment." Tvert further argued that, had news reports not led with the sensationalist story about the chanting, they would have led with uncritical accounts of statements of those participating in the conference.

Furthermore, Owens's whining about "free debate" rings a little hollow, given that he has refused to debate SAFER. "I asked him to debate. We said anytime, anywhere... and he refused to to it," Tvert said. "He's upset that he didn't get a free day of pandering and bullshit. He expected to get every false statement that they said printed as fact in the newspaper."

The Rocky Mountain News editorial page has been pretty good about covering Amendment 44, even though it offered weak reasons for opposing it. On October 21, the News hosted an exchange between Tvert and Suthers. On September 15, the News editorialized against the Blue Book's misrepresentation of Amendment 44.

However, the News's October 28 editorial exaggerates the case against the proponents of Amendment 44. The editorial claims that the proponents expect opponents "to shut up about it." And it includes the claim about the alleged "assault." Rude? Yes. A "direct assault on the First Amendment?" Get serious.

The mighty Rocky Mountain News, with its vast resources, managed to put only one minute, fifty seconds of the press conference online:

This, of course, is the segment during which Owens whines like an elementary school girl and hams it up for his media, which are always on the lookout for the sensationalist angle to a story.

Those who want the full story must turn to this web page, which provides the entire press conference, including the complete speeches of all the scheduled speakers, along with subsequent answers to questions from favored media.

Owens was not "shouted down," he was "shouted at," and there is a difference.Only two people at the conference shut down debate, and those people are Governor Bill Owens and Sheriff John Cooke.

The issue of protests is one I've struggled with. Where does the speech of one party inappropriately interfere with that of another? Only well-defined property rights can draw sharp lines. The state capitol is public property, so don't we all have a right to say what we want there? If Owens had held his conference in his own home or in a private hall, he could have invited only those he wanted. But he chose to hold it on public property, out in the open, where the public is invited, and where the public retains equal rights of speech.

Turn to any cable show about politics to find speakers continually interrupting each other. Is that "a direct assault on the First Amendment?" Again, SAFER's supporters did not prevent Owens's group from speaking; they merely made noise. (The amplified voices of Owens's speakers successfully competed with the voices of SAFER.) This case is not analogous to the physical shut-down of the Columbus parade.

What about the occasional snide remark? I suppose that, had a group taken to the capitol steps to promote slavery or racism, the News would not have minded the voices of protesters.

Nevertheless, I think the Golden Rule can be invoked in cases of press conferences. Temporary use of the capitol steps to hold a press conference seems like a reasonable use of public property, and opponents generally should keep quiet during the official event. There's plenty of time for energetic protests before and after. Obviously people get emotional over these sorts of issues (and I too have slipped). So I think the appropriate protocol is for leaders of protest groups to communicate the rules of etiquette in advance, then enforce them. Noise before and after the other side holds its formal event; silence during that event.

The participants of the press conference are the ones who advocate and/or perpetrate the violation of basic human rights. Yet the News exaggerated claims against the members of SAFER while ignoring the real and serious rights violations of the other side.

Those who enforce marijuana prohibition subject peaceable citizens to harassment and theft, at a minimum. Yes, sending out men with guns to fine people for nothing more than possessing small amounts of a plant is theft, or at least the moral equivalent of theft. At the more severe end, enforcers of marijuana prohibition subject peaceable citizens to physical assault (in some cases life-threatening), kidnapping, and unjust imprisonment.

Lawful protest against such injustice is not only acceptable but morally mandatory. Yet the Rocky Mountain News thrashes the members of SAFER for the egregious sin of hollering, while completely ignoring the serious and pervasive rights violations of those who stood beside Governor Owens.

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