Thursday, March 20, 2008

Legal Observers Defend Free Speech

ACLU of Wisconsin sends legal observers to Madison antiwar protests

Wednesday, March 19 was the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Around the country, protesters marked the date with vigils and demonstrations, most notably in San Francisco and Washington D.C. (read on for an AP article posted on and the Reuters coverage)

In our own backyard, the ACLU of Wisconsin sent a team of legal observers to be witnesses at local demonstrations downtown and on the east side. Demonstrators saw ACLU volunteers in yellow t-shirts, handing out orange mini-fliers detailing protesters’ rights and what to do if you are stopped by police. These legal observer volunteers documented the citations given to demonstrators who disrupted the military recruitment center on the east side and they witnessed the march on the square as well as the visit to Senator Herb Kohl’s office.

Here is a picture of Mike, one of our yellow-shirted volunteers observing the rally downtown:

The Capitol Times had this coverage from staff and wire with no mention of protesters in Kohl’s office.

Visitors to Kohl's office were greeted with a reception window and a wall with a security camera, a very different welcome than what students experienced when they sat-in on Kohl's office last year.

Although Channel 27 and NBC 15 were both at the scene, there haven’t been any postings of coverage on their websites as of 10:30 this morning. However Channel 3000 does have this short article.

And here is a picture of one of the legal observers documenting when demonstrators were given citations at the east side military recruitment center which seems to have gotten no media coverage at all.

To find out more about the legal observer program in the ACLU of Wisconsin Madison Area Office, contact Community Advocate Stacy Harbaugh at (608) 469-5540. I can tell you more about how and when we deploy our volunteers, how you can get involved and when the next training will be.

Why legal observers? – March 19, 2008 Vestal, NY protest
First some background: I am personally interested in how protests make news. I think of myself as a free-speech enthusiast and I think that Constitutionally-protected, public expressions of opinion are not only worth protecting but should be celebrated.

But I also feel that while media stories based in the who-what-when-where-why of public demonstrations start with a focus on the conflict (arrests, property damage, physical harm), the attention given to conflict becomes more important than why people are moved to demonstrate. “If it bleeds, it leads” becomes more valuable than the root of why people are demanding attention.

Bleeding leads are even more complicated when you find different facts in different places.

An example from a little protest yesterday in the college town of Vestal, NY. Making a hit on the AP wire, Madison’s Capitol Times newspaper used the wire source to include news from across the nation to supplement staff coverage of the local protest on the square. The wire source described the Binghampton University student protest and included information about how the student protesters “tied up traffic in the town of Vestal, N.Y., causing two traffic accidents.” I thought that traffic blockade protests tended to cause more headaches than accidents for drivers, so I decided to check out the local coverage of the protests to see if there was more to the story.

What I found was a lot of footage (both raw and edited) of the student protest and the police response. Working under a couple of assumptions (1. I assume that students did not have a permit to be on the street and 2. Blocking traffic is not Constitutionally-protected activity and demonstrators who do that should know they are subjecting themselves to arrest), I looked at the media reports both for facts and for an analysis of when rights were properly asserted and when they were violated.

The footage and reports are varied, but the basic story is that students walked, students occupied a lane of traffic with police traffic control, students occupied all lanes of traffic to which police responded, students resisted police, pepper spray and arrests ensued. But where were the car crashes?

Check out this article: "Binghampton-U War Protest Turns Violent: Ten people were arrested after police say they began shoving officers at an anti-war rally in upstate New York." This story shows a stark difference between reports from students and police. The title of this article leads readers to understand that students started violent acts. Student testimony on the video leads viewers to understand that police intervention after their blocking of traffic began the conflict.

This article (a Long Island based on-line news clearinghouse) also states that students started the violence.

This WSYR coverage has raw footage of the aggressive behavior of law enforcement in subduing students

Only this WBNG coverage seemed to be somewhat neutral in identifying aggression on both sides of the conflict.

This News 10 coverage shows a banged up car, but little context.

In the video on the Press and Sun Bulletin website (the nearby Binghampton, NY newspaper) there is testimony from student protesters. If a viewer looks closely, one can see a tow truck. However a police vehicle is blocking the view of the car being towed.

Finally, after much digging, this Press and Sun Bulletin article says that the two accidents happened in the oncoming traffic lanes. Rubbernecking at the protest perhaps? If accidents happened in the opposing lanes, is it really fair to say that the traffic blockade protest "caused" the accidents?

When news coverage of public demonstrations focus on bleeding leads, conflict and property damage, people exerting their Constitutionally-protected exercise of free speech are ignored. Further, when only riots and violence make news, does the public then become fearful of protests? And yet further, a public who is fearful of protest, who watched television coverage of Chicago circa 1968 police brutality when “the whole world was watching,” and watched television coverage of Seattle circa 1999 police brutality when yet again “the whole world was watching,” and when this public gets angry enough to demonstrate in the face of such coverage, where are their stories?

Legal observers are critical witnesses to public protest. These volunteers document Constitutionally-protected free expression. We document all the action, from dangerous traffic blockades to aggressive police response. We serve as witnesses if people's Constitutional rights are violated. Legal observers are necessary to witness protests because, as in the example of Vestal, people need to tell the story of a protest from a fourth perspective. We aren't protesters, police or media. We are legal observers.

The next time you see a demonstration in Madison, watch for the yellow “legal observer” t-shirts. We’re watching out for free expression.