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Thursday, August 12, 2004

Free Speech Zones

In modern Russian the prison jargon has become a significant part of many people's vocabulary. Those who use it are not necessarily criminals or ex-inmates,- this linguistic infusion penetrates all layers of the society, from the streets of industrial towns to the corridors of power. And that is an inevitable consequence of mass imprisonment which reached its peak during the years of Stalin's purges and has remained part of Russia's reality to this day. In his world renowned book GULAG Archipelago Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides a masterful description of how the world of prisons affects the world on the other side of the fence,- linguistically, culturally, mentally and in many other ways.

In Russian prison jargon "zona" (Russian for "zone") means "prison camp". Thus to a Russian speaker this modern term, "free speech zone", sounds somewhat ironic. I have recently seen the one in Boston next to the Fleet Center, the site of the Democratic National Convention. To a large extent I believe the description of it Dahlia Lithwick provides in her New York Times column to be correct.
The largely ignored "free-speech zone" at the Democratic convention in Boston last month was an affront to the spirit of the Constitution.
You may want to take a look at these pictures and see for yourself. Personally, I think these pictures show it in a bit too grim a light,- but not by much. I think Lithwick is also correct in her comments on some sections of the Patriot Act.
One section invented a broad new crime called "domestic terrorism" - punishing activities that "involve acts dangerous to human life" if a person's intent is to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." If that sounds as if it's directed more toward effigy-burning, or Greenpeace activity, than international terror, it's because it is. International terror was already illegal.
My only comment to her above statement would be that all terrorism, whether originating overseas or within the US, had been illegal long before Ashcroft came up with an idea to write the Patriot Act. Furthermore, so has been murder, assault and destruction of property, as well as conspiracy to commit the above-mentioned crimes,- the crimes that pretty much inevitably follow every terror attack.

Specifically regarding the "free speech zones", I must admit to a complete mental failure to comprehend what security objective they accomplish. I tend to think wearing a button or a t-shirt with a certain verbiage on it has not yet stopped anybody from engaging in any sort of violence (unless you believe in amulets, that is). So it is beyond me why, given their prior knowledge of the practice of "free speech zones", an individual or a group planning an act of sabotage would not pose as supporters to get as close as they can to the group or person they seek to harm. And unless those who have instituted the practice come forth with a sensible explanation as to what security benefits it yields, I will continue to view that practice exclusively as that of intimidation, oppression and censorship.

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