(Guest post by Greg Forster)
A good Higgy nomination is a tough target to hit. As we found out last year, your pick can be rejected for being too powerful and thus being more a case of BSDD (Big Scary Dictator Disorder) than PLDD (Petty Little Dictator Disorder), as happened to my nomination of David Sarnoff. But your nomination can also be rejected for being not powerful enough, and thus not making a sufficiently large contribution to the worsening of the human condition to merit the award; this was the rationale given by the judges for not selecting Jay’s nomination of Louis Michael Seidman.
So the big behind-the-scenes bigshots who pull the real strings of power are out, and TV blowhards who just talk about what the bigshots do are also out. The core value of the Higgy is “arrogant delusions of shaping the world”; the bigshots are not deluded in thinking they can shape the world, whereas the blowhards don’t really even try to shape the world so much as describe those who do.
With all that in mind, I nominate Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for the Higgy, for inventing the “free speech zone,” also known as the “First Amendment area.”
As you can see from the image above, the basic idea of free speech zones is that “constitutional first amendment rights” are only to be exercised in government-designated areas. They are now used in virtually all major events, such as national political conventions; they are also set up anywhere something controversial is happening that attracts protests. They’ve been in the news lately in connection with the Bureau of Land Management’s dispute with the Bundy family in Nevada. As Mark Steyn comments, “The ‘First Amendment Area’ is supposed to be something called ‘the United States.’”
Gone is the old idea of America as the one country on the face of God’s earth where literally anyone can just stand there on the sidewalk talking to anyone who will listen, or where people can organize to protest the actions of the powerful in genuinely public spaces. The pseudo-genius of the free speech zone is that government doesn’t forbid you from speaking per se, it simply designates the zone in a secluded, out of the way place, destroying the public nature of your speech.
Yes, everyone agrees that there have to be some limits on the use of public space; if ten different groups all want to have huge rallies in the town square at the same time, you’ll run into problems. But, again, the pseudo-genius of the free speech zone is that it shifts us from dealing with that kind of coordination problem to the removal of free speech from public spaces entirely. It’s a transition from “speak as you will, unless your activities get in other people’s way, and then we have to find some accommodation for competing claims,” to “you may not speak in public places, lest you get in other people’s way.”
But of course the real motive behind the creation of free speech zones is not to avoid coordination problems. It is to prevent protests from besmirching the public image of big events and other things that powerful officials want to run smoothly. These zones are intended to isolate “free speech” from actual public participation, in order to create the appearance that all is smiles and unicorns in the sun-kissed lands of modern America, under the benevolent rule of our lords and masters, whose benevolence is proven by the fact that they generously grant us free speech zones.
Kirk’s actions in inventing the free speech zone exemplify the core value of the Higgy exceptionally well. He was chairman of the Democratic party during its 1988 national convention, which seems to be generally agreed upon as having pioneered the use of these zones. And it’s pretty clear that Kirk’s goal was to silence free speech in public places. Consider this contemporary account:
But even those groups that are cooperating with the system are upset that the official “free-speech zone” is too far from the convention arena (in fact, it’s about 500 yards away, down a hill, around a corner and hidden by a hotel-and-shopping complex). “You can’t be seen by delegates in the ‘free- speech zone,’ ” complained Peterson.
“The city keeps telling us that the buses bringing delegates will let them off right across from the protest area, so they’ll have to see us,” said Paul Cornwell, chief organizer of Alternative ’88. “But you know how that’ll go. It’s going to be about 100 degrees out there and all the delegates are going to zoom into the air conditioning as fast as they can.”…
Protesters also were angered to learn – during a hearing on the suit – that the city plans to use the street that separates the “free-speech zone” from the Omni Center to park the delegates’ buses.
“In addition to putting us out of sight, they’re going to form a barricade of parked buses,” Peterson said.
Kirk seems to have drawn his inspiration from the Planning Office in Hitchhiker’s Guide:
The tradition has continued in the use of free speech zones ever since.
If this were effective in silencing speech, Kirk might not qualify for the Higgy on grounds that he’s a case of BSDD. But in fact free speech zones don’t silence free speech. Protestors ignore them; note that the quote above begins with “But even those groups that are cooperating with the system . . .” There were a number of groups that didn’t cooperate with Kirk’s system in 1988. The public image of the event was even more effectively spoiled than it would have been by a peaceful public protest.
By contrast, when Communist authorities in China copied our model of free speech zones (read those words again: Communist authorities in China copied our model of free speech zones) during the 2008 Olympics, it had few difficulties. Over in China, free speech zones are BSDD. Here in America, they’re PLDD.
True to form, today the rallies in Nevada were not held in the designated free speech zone, and protesters got into nasty conflicts with authorities. Ultimately the authorities – who were actually in the right as regards the merits of the case, but who had blown everything out of proportion and were more concerned with swaggering around with guns than with settling the dispute in a reasonable way – had to back off in humiliation.
Huge shock: people who are highly motivated enough to turn out for a protest do not simply bow their heads and do as they’re told when they’re told that free speech is no longer allowed in genuinely public spaces. If you deny them a legitimate opportunity to make their voice heard, that only makes them more angry and more determined to make their voices heard. So even when the lawful authorities are in the right, their efforts to silence dissent only make them look wrong and undermine their ability to enforce the rules.
Talk about arrogant delusions of shaping the world! I’m proud to nominate Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for The Higgy.