Restraining dissent is harmful

This story was published on Sept. 10, 2004 on Page A15 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Almost a year ago, I wrote an opinion piece titled “Criminalizing dissent,” in which I recounted the events of a year that included the brutalization of protesters at the Miami FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) demonstrations, the prosecution of Greenpeace as a criminal enterprise and the serious mistreatment of those demonstrating at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Since that time, however, it appears that law enforcement and government have developed far more subtle ways of stifling dissent.

Dissent is no longer met with repressive force; rather, it is “steered” into appropriate channels. The march/rally permit process and the establishment of free speech zones, the former an issue during the Republican National Convention, the latter during the Democratic National Convention, are both designed to weaken the message of protest. Free speech zones, or – in the case of Boston – cages, are designed to be far from those to whom the message is directed. The cumbersome permit process is equally disruptive to the message of protest, destroying spontaneity.

Any group that does not plan its rally or march literally weeks in advance risks arrest for failing to secure a permit. These days it is the government and law enforcement that set the parameters of protest, a reality that is a far cry from the days of the Boston Tea Party, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. By creating the rules with which protesters agree to abide, law enforcement and government essentially control the channels through which the mes-sage is distributed.

By controlling the channels of distribution, the context is changed and the message itself is therefore changed. A candlelight vigil, or a march along the sidewalks, conveys a far different, and less powerful, message than a march through the streets that temporarily blocks traffic.

We may be annoyed at blocked traffic or other inconveniences. But protest is sometimes messy and inconvenient. Yet, as Maine Superior Court Justice Alan Hunter stated a year ago, from time to time there are “events of civil disobedience, and they make us all uncomfortable. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. Those of us who prefer the comfort of a status quo are made to feel uncomfortable when we have people engaging in actions which violate the norm.”

In Camden we are currently seeing such subtle restraints on free speech rights that were used in Boston and New York. As the felling of 170 trees along Route 1 is about to commence, we are told the Department of Transportation will order the power shut off to 6,000 households if and when any protester climbs a tree to protest.

Of course safety considerations are necessary; however, there are many situations in which a protester might climb a tree along Route 1 that would not involve potential contact with live electric wires, such as the fact that the wires are strung along only one side of the road, and many trees slated to be cut are on the other side.

Likewise, a protester might not climb a tree, but rather chain herself to a tree. Would this require shutting off the power? Clearly, the DOT is trying to undermine community support for the protesters’ cause by placing blame for any and all disruptions on the protesters, rather than on a state agency – the DOT – that has consistently failed to consider the best interests of communities when making their decisions. The result in this case will certainly be a stifling of dissent and a chilling of free speech.

When law enforcement and government stifle dissent, much more than the interplay of ideas is sacrificed. We in the United States have a rich history of protest, dissent and civil disobedience. As Justice Hunter went on to say, it’s “important that these contests of principles and ideals get a fresh airing out from time to time. We do have a tendency to grow complacent with our existence. We sleep on our rights. We forget those rights. From time to time, it’s a useful thing to be reminded…”

Unfortunately the authorities in Camden seem to have done just that – forgotten about our rights. Maybe it’s time they are reminded.

Lynne Williams is an attorney and a candidate for the Maine Legislature from the 47th House District.