Challenging Cleveland’s Free Speech Zone

Bennett L. Gershman writes for the Huffington Post about the ongoing controversy over Cleveland, Ohio’s imposition of a free-speech zone in advance of the upcoming Republican National Convention. Cleveland city regulators have created a 3.5-square mile area dubbed the “Event Zone,” and are restricting parades, demonstrations, and speech-making anywhere in the zone.

The regulations require anyone wishing to exercise expressive rights within the zone to acquire a permit, which Gershman points out is a generally unconstitutional form of censorship known as “prior restraint.” He also argues that even in situations where a city government may have a compelling interest in maintaining public safety and trying to combat traffic congestion, it is still essential for that government to respect the First Amendment rights of its citizens by narrowly tailoring its regulation to allow the exercise of broad speech rights.

Gershman does note that the ACLU has successfully challenged the Cleveland speech zone on First Amendment grounds, resulting in a federal district judge ordering the city to modify its regulations. As of yet, however, these particular modifications have not been revealed, leaving the public unclear as to what limitations may still be placed on speech around the convention.

Restrictions on speech like those causing controversy in Cleveland can be dangerous to free speech because they stifle the ability of protestors to peaceably assemble, and they further contribute to, and indeed officially sanction, a culture of coercive intolerance towards those who disagree with prevailing attitudes or whose ideas are considered particularly troubling.

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