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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Not So Free Speech

In the kabuki theatre world of GWB Productions, there is good speech (that which works with the stage direction of the event) and bad speech (that which does not make for good camera shots and must, therefore, be shut down).

You will no doubt recall last year's instance of free speech theatre, the Purple Finger Brigade. (Not to be confused with the Blue Man Group, which is a whole 'nother level of entertainment.)

At last night's State of the Union, there were two instances of free speech being shut down. Not because either person involved was being loud, or obnoxious, or even saying anything out loud. But simply because both women wore shirts with printing on them which stated how they felt at the moment -- and both were ejected from the State of the Union because their messages -- from opposite ends of the political divide -- would not look good on television for the Preznit's night in the spotlight.

It turns out Cindy Sheehan wasn't the only woman thrown out of the speech last night:
Sheehan, a prominent foe of the Iraq war, was ejected just minutes before the State of the Union speech for wearing a T-shirt with an anti-war slogan. She'd been there as the guest of California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

Also removed from the gallery was Beverly Young. She's the wife of Republican Congressman Bill Young of Florida, who chairs the House defense appropriations panel. Her own shirt wasn't anti-war -- it read, "Support the Troops -- Defending Our Freedom."

She tells the St. Petersburg Times she was sitting about six rows from Laura Bush when she was asked to leave, and that she then argued with police in the hallway. She says they told her they considered her shirt a "protest," and that she responded, "Then you are an idiot." And she says they told her she was being treated the same as Sheehan.

As for Sheehan, she writes today that she plans to file a First Amendment lawsuit.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, can they just throw you out of the gallery like that? Well, I mistakenly said yes last night, remembering the signs that I had seen posted around the Hill the last few times I had been to watch proceedings regarding vocal and other protests, and a family incident that occurred when I was a kid and my mother embarassed me to no end by trying to get Sen. Byrd's attention to let him know folks from WV were in the gallery -- but I was unaware of a not-too-distant ruling that Glenn Greenwald graciously reminded me of from a 1997 case on free speech (that's why he's the 1st Amendment expert!),Bynum v. U.S. Capitol Police Bd. (Dist. D.C. 1997) (PDF).

Glenn has a superb post outlining why the arrest of Ms. Sheehan was not kosher, to put it mildly, and presumably why the ejection of Beverly Young was equally egregious. I recommend a read if you are interested in this. And you ought to be -- in a nation where the President works this hard to stifle dissent and to so tightly control his surroundings that a supporter wearing a shirt which contained an unapproved message was ejected, too -- well, that just smacks of a whole lot of things that this nation has long stood against, now doesn't it?

In Beverly Young's case, her crime was sitting within camera range of Laura Bush in a shirt which wasn't PR friendly for the Preznit's message. Wonder how she and her Republican pals feel about free speech in America this morning? Oh, that pesky Presidential PR machine, gets in the way of so many little things like speaking your mind or having your own opinion or...oh, exercising your rights as a citizen and having civil liberties under the First Amendment.

In George Bush's America, your speech is free only when it doesn't inconvenience the President.

NOTE: From Urban Pirate in the comments:
Only Sheehan was physically removed and arrested, however. Beverly Young was simply escorted out.
I meant to make this point clearly, and failed to do so. Didn't want this to get lost in the analysis.