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Free-speech zone proves audience-free
Protesters mull value of platform for civil liberty
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Standing atop a creaky wooden platform above a muddy, fenced-in field, protester Bob Kunst gave a dozen or so cardboard rubbish bins near the Democratic National Convention a piece of his mind.
Mr. Kunst criticized American policy toward Israel. He warned against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. As a countdown clock ticked away, he struggled to be heard — in part because the field was completely empty, in part because a nearby gas-powered generator all but drowned out his words.
When Mr. Kunst finished speaking, a trash bag blew across the grassy expanse, designated by the city as a “free speech zone.”
Like many cities that have hosted large political gatherings — including Tampa, Fla, home to last week’s Republican National Convention — Charlotte has created an official area where protesters are allowed to speak.
Located on a plot of undeveloped land down the street from the Charlotte Convention Center and next to a highway, the city’s “speaker’s platform” gives activists a 30-minute window to express their opinions through city-provided loudspeakers.
Ostensibly constructed to enhance convention security, the platform has produced a civil liberties riddle: If protesters such as Mr. Kunst exercise their First Amendment rights in a deserted designated zone, do they actually make a sound?
“The notion of being relegated to a fenced-off area in a government-designated free-speech zone is troubling,” said Michael Zytkow, a 26-year-old Charlotte resident and Occupy Charlotte organizer. “So many people have fought for us to have and keep these freedoms.”
More than a dozen groups and individuals have signed up for speaking slots, which were assigned via a lottery drawing earlier this year.
Activists, however, have criticized both the concept and location of the platform, which sits more than a half-mile from Time Warner Cable Arena, home to the first two nights of the DNC.
That includes Mr. Zytkow, who intends to leave something symbolic — a picture, a sign, perhaps an empty chair — on the platform during his upcoming evening speaking slot.
“It’s always difficult to balance security and free speech, but the process they used to let people speak was the same as giving away an iPod at a bingo hall,” he said, “and activists were completely left out of choosing a location.
“So a number of us decided to jam the system, kind of making a mockery of the whole thing. Not only are we boycotting participating within the free speech zone, but you won’t see people even coming to listen.”
That much was evident yesterday afternoon, as Mr. Kunst and Steve Widdows — a self-described “street preacher” discussing “sodomy, abortion and fornication” — spoke to no one and a single curious television camera crew, respectively.
DC Vote Public Affairs Director Eugene Kinlow, whose group was scheduled for a midafternoon speaking slot, said the platform’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind location was disappointing.
“We want our message to get out as broadly as possible,” said Mr. Kinlow, whose group advocates for Washington, D.C., statehood. “But while this does curtail our effort, we still want to take advantage of the opportunity — “
Mr. Kinlow paused to yelp and slap his leg. He was standing on an anthill.
Cursing briefly, he said, “I was wondering why my leg was burning.”
At an adjacent intersection, an anti-war march was halted by a large group of police, who ringed protesters chanting, “We demand to use our First Amendment!”
The irony of the scene wasn’t lost on Democratic delegate David Ratcliff.
“I think the police presence is warranted because they have to keep things safe,” said Mr. Ratcliff, 43, a resident of Owasso, Okla. “But I don’t believe you should have a designated free-speech zone. The entire country should be a free-speech zone.”
As Mr. Widdows delivered his speech — winding, impassioned, directed at the trash bins — a local volunteer sat behind a nearby card table.
He was asked if he expected anyone else to show up.
“We have speakers lined up all day long,” the volunteer said. “Are you talking about people coming to watch the speakers?”
The volunteer looked up from the table, topped by an unused bullhorn.
“Who knows?” he said.
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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