‘Medaling’ With Free Speech
by Walter Brasch
President Bush last week sounded just like a liberal.
Yes, you read that right. Bush. Liberal. Same sentence.
At the new U.S. embassy in Beijing on the opening day of the Olympics, he said, “All people should have the freedom to say what they think.” Without even blinking, he also told the world, while directing his comments at the Chinese, “We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful.”
The day before, in Tibet, he boldly said, “America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists.” He said he was speaking out “for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights, not to antagonize China’s leaders but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.”
There was only one problem with the President’s comments. His actions the past seven years have proven he doesn’t believe what his speech writers told him to say.
In Charleston, W. Va., at a Bush speech on July 4, 2004, non-violent protestors were handcuffed and arrested.
In Pittsburgh, a retired steelworker was arrested for carrying a sign. In Michigan, it was a student. In Hamilton, N.J., it was the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who asked the wrong question of Laura Bush.
Almost 2,000 peaceful protestors at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City were arrested and subjected to what can only be called “primitive” prison conditions for several days—until the courts threw out almost all of the arrest warrants.
As Texas governor, Bush had ordered peaceful protesters away from the governor’s mansion. As president, he directed there be zones as much as a half-mile from any Presidential cavalcade or speech for anyone protesting his policies. For those who refuse to enter into these remote and generally obscure “free-speech zones, police arrest them for trespassing or disorderly conduct, and then detain them until the President or Vice-President is out of the area and the media leave.
When challenged, law enforcement officials claim the separation is for security reasons. Persons carrying pro-administration signs are allowed to be in the line of sight to the President and Vice-President. Anyone wishing to harm the President needs only to carry a sign praising the President or not to carry one at all. By creating a protest zone hundreds of yards away, the Bush–Cheney Administration’s actions are designed not so much to protect the President as to give the political illusion of the President’s “popularity.” The media, especially the television media, focus upon the President and crowds that are carefully selected and deftly manipulated to show enthusiastic support of Bush and his policies. Because they believe the “story” is with the President, they usually ignore dissenters, especially if they’re away from the President. It gives a false picture, yet is politically clever.
Under the PATRIOT Act, Americans’ rights of privacy, including their reading habits, could be scrutinized by the FBI. Protestors—even peaceful ones—can be charged with terrorism. Dissenters are often denied the right to fly on commercial airlines. In Bush’s target have been Greenpeace and the Quakers. Like China’s leaders, America’s leaders say these restrictive measures only exist to protect the nation.
Americans are right to condemn China for its totalitarian suppression of dissent, the manipulation of free expression, and for building three “Protest Pens” in Beijing to keep protestors away from an international sporting event. Americans should also have condemned the “protest pens” at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. More important, Americans should have spent the past seven years condemning the Bush–Cheney Administration for systematic violations of six Constitutional amendments, including the First Amendment guarantees of free expression.
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning syndicated columnist, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (November 2007), available through amazon.com and other bookstores. You may contact Brasch at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com]