Even we’ll admit that it is difficult to digest everything that happened less than two weeks ago in Boston, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets against hate and a pathetic handful of its trusty delegates. Sure, our reporters covered many happenings, from Roxbury to Boston Common, more than any other outlet, and has followed up on issues related to the police tactics deployed, among other things, with more reporting on the way. But with everyone from President Donald Trump and the jackasses at Fox News to Joe Biden using what unfolded in the Hub to validate their own positions, reality can even begin to look scrambled to those of us who witnessed the events directly.
Fortunately, journalists and legal watchers took a bunch of notes. And pictures. And videos. As did activists and onlookers and thousands of others who were there on the scene. In the time since, there has already been significant analysis, including by DigBoston’s own Jason Pramas, who wrote, “regardless of their extremist politics, the reactionaries had the right to hold a rally on the Common, and that right was severely and probably illegally curtailed [by the Boston Police Department].” Pramas continued: “All of this is simply unacceptable in a democratic society. It’s perhaps understandable that any city government will have a police presence at such a big political event. But it makes little sense to have hundreds of cops—including militarized “robocops”—from a number of local, state, and, almost certainly, federal agencies on hand. Unless the city, state, and federal governments were more concerned about the protests against the ultra-right extremists than they were about the extremists.”
Among the many to weigh in on these issues, the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) has released a compelling statement calling on Boston “to better balance First Amendment rights with security needs.” It’s on the money, and so informative and forward-looking that we thought it was our duty to excerpt it here:
- NEFAC believes certain restrictions in place during the recent Boston Common protest unreasonably interfered with the right of journalists to cover a story of immense public interest. The restrictions may have also violated the First Amendment right of Americans to express themselves in offensive, even hateful, ways.
- Specifically, journalists should not have been banned from the Parkman Bandstand, where a controversial rally occurred on Aug. 19, and accommodations should have been made for close-up press coverage of the speakers as is usually done at public events. In addition, comments made by city officials indicate an intent to use an unusually large buffer zone to prevent supporters of the rally from expressing offensive views.
As for “lessons to be learned and changes that need to be made…” NEFAC recommends:
- Journalists should be provided close-up access to public areas where speakers assemble. Credentials could be requested to distinguish would-be protesters from reporters. Reasonable accommodations should always be made instead of outright media bans. Even pool coverage could be allowed if there is limited space.
- Media organizations should consider any restriction on press freedom with the utmost scrutiny and never take access for granted. Unreasonable restrictions on the press should be challenged promptly and aggressively… In a memo sent to news organizations two days prior to the rally, Boston city officials announced that media restrictions would be imposed “due to increased public safety concerns.” One restriction would be that “no media personnel will be allowed inside the barricaded area around the Bandstand.”
- Furthermore: While it’s understandable that most journalists assumed rally organizers would be using a sound system and could be heard despite the buffer zone, the city still imposed a policy that should have been more strongly and swiftly challenged. The restriction was unnecessary and it deprived journalists the opportunity to fully report a story of national significance. Reporters would have posed no threat to the rally speakers and the buffer zone would have protected the press from any violent response by those on the Common.
- And: The decision to ban media from the bandstand became even more consequential after the rally organizers failed to provide a sound system to amplify their voices. After about 45 minutes their rally ended with most of those on the Common having not heard a single word they spoke. Because of the media ban there is little definitive record of what message, if any, was shared and by whom.
- Under the First Amendment, law enforcement must not act in a way that endorses or favors one type of speech over another. If any restrictions on speech or assembly are needed – such as a large buffer zone – they can only be imposed if content-neutral. While the unusually large size of the buffer zone could have possibly survived a legal challenge by itself, NEFAC believes the comments of city officials point to an intent to curtail offensive speech that would not pass constitutional muster.
- The First Amendment requires the protection of speech no matter how vulgar or offensive. If there were additional speakers looking to express themselves or journalists trying to cover what was said, they should not have been prevented from doing so based on a message Boston city officials didn’t want shared.