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NOREEN: City Hall tinkers with free speech

By: BARRY NOREEN
January 5, 2012
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The city that has had trouble running its own elections or conducting credible liquor enforcement investigations now deems itself capable of drafting new laws to further limit where and how nonviolent free-speech protests will be allowed.

It’s only in the research phase, but downtown’s brave new world could one day include enclaves Attorney Chris Melcher calls “protest zones.” These would be places where unruly protesters could be sort of fenced off, which of course would dilute the impact of the protest.

In the wake of the Occupy Wall Street episode at Acacia Park, Mayor Steve Bach has directed Melcher to research restrictions on political protest — Colorado Springs City Hall is in the process of wielding a meat cleaver to dice onions. When Big Brother begins tinkering with the Bill of Rights, the cure almost always is worse than the “problem” that triggered the tinkering in the first place.

“Patently absurd,” said Loring Wirbel, co-chair of the Pikes Peak chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’ll be attending any city council meeting where this is discussed and taking a position of blanket opposition. They’re asking for trouble.”

Free speech rights are far from absolute. But you’ll notice that whenever there is a First Amendment issue, free speech rights are never expanded.

Every citizen should be squinting pretty hard at what City Hall does with this.

Melcher said after the Occupy Wall Street protest, concerns were raised “by several council members as well as the mayor.” Noting that the protest took place next to the Uncle Wilber fountain at Acacia Park, Melcher asked, “is a sustained, large protest appropriate in a place where there are small children?”

It’s nice we’re doing it for the kids, but who will define “sustained” and “large?”

Melcher stressed that “it’s early in the process. We may come back and provide guidance (to the council) that this is something that should not be pursued.”

A stretch of roadway in the city is named after Martin Luther King Jr. for a reason. There is a valuable, rich tradition of nonviolent protest in America and most of the time protesters don’t ask government for it to be sanctioned in advance.

True enough, we can’t let protesters camp out forever. But we should be leery when free speech limits come wrapped in a flag, or as the latest apology for lagging downtown retail.

The City Council could use its time in better ways than in limiting free speech. Go to any major city and you’ll see various protests on many street corners as people weigh in on everything from human rights in China to animal cruelty.

Sometimes the protests can be annoying, but that is part of the cost of doing business in a free society.

Listen to Barry Noreen on KRDO NewsRadio 105.5 FM and 1240 AM at 6:35 a.m. on Fridays and read his blog updates at gazette.com/blogs/barrysblog

 

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