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Menino and Unfree Speech Zones

            Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino treads a shameful, unwise, constitutionally dubious, and ultimately ineffective path when he orders his goons to keep the untidy street performers from the plaza surrounding City Hall and Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Relegating the clowns, artists and other performers to a small sliver of territory, outside of the main arena of activity, not only forecloses more than one performance at a time, but relegates the performers to an inconsequential status. In fact, they are – or should be – the life of the party. Only adding irony is the fact that the center of life and excitement in the Faneuil Hall area should be interrupted by a mayor whose speeches and other public statements are so dull as to make Sominex unnecessary.

            The concept of “free speech zones” has had a checkered history in the Boston area and elsewhere around the country. In the 1988-89 academic year, Jean Mayer, then-President of Tufts University, ordered that student speech and demonstrations should be limited to certain “free speech zones” located at certain inconspicuous places on the campus to better maintain order. Students the next morning marked the entire campus with chalk, denominating “free” and “unfree” zones. When the major daily newspapers got wind of the plan, and news photographers showed a campus that looked like Berlin in 1946, Mayer backed off. After all, how would it look to the world if the administration of a liberal arts campus turned out to be a censor of free speech and academic freedom?

            Unfortunately, such “free speech zones” (they are in fact censorship zones, since 99% of the typical campus is off-limits for free speech when small areas are designated as “free speech zones”) are increasingly common in an era where universities function more like businesses than institutions of higher education. Administrations tend to back down, though, when they attract the attention of organizations such as The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, www.TheFire.org. (Disclosure: I am Chairman of the Board of FIRE.) Recent cases at the University of Nevada-Reno, Clemson University, and Texas Tech University prove that, like bottom-line focused businesses, today’s colleges and universities abhor negative press.

            And state and federal authorities turned Boston into an “unfree” speech zone during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. When the restrictions were challenged by the ACLU of Massachusetts and others, U. S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock wrote a sad opinion saying that he simply did not have the time and expertise to second-guess the law enforcement experts providing security for attendees.

            One would think that the Faneuil Hall and City Hall area is more akin to the quad of a college campus than to the arena outside of a political convention – the latter being a place where security becomes of utmost (even if regrettable) importance. The mayor wants his office in City Hall “protected” from the din below. Restaurant owners want their patrons to enjoy the kind of quiet they would get in a suburb or a farm rather than a world-class city. But what makes a city great is the vibrancy of its daily life. And the street performers outside Faneuil Hall offer more life than, for example, the guy that Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr appropriately, even if somewhat cruelly, refers to as “Mumbles Menino.”

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