February 2, 2006

Easy Call

During the recent state of the union address, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan attended as the guest of California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Cal.) She wore a T-shirt expressing her anti-war beliefs and when she refused to cover it up during the speech, she was arrested in the gallery and escorted off the premises of the Captiol.

A right-of-center Congressman (Bill Young, R-Fla.) claims that his wife was similarly treated for wearing a pro-war T-shirt during the President's speech. I'm only hearing about this for the first time two days later, and it appears she she got much lighter treatment than Sheehan. Still, there was consistent action against wearing T-shirts bearing political messages during the State of the Union address by the Capitol Police.

Proof that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Students of the Constitution will recall that in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), a man arrested for wearing a leather jacket bearing the slogan "Fuck The Draft" in what is today called the Stanley Mosk Central Court on First and Hill Streets in downtown Los Angeles. This arrest, and the thirty-day jail term to which Cohen was sentenced, were unconstitutional, because the courthouse was found to be a public forum in which people were entitled to express themselves, even in the crude manner which Cohen chose.

Now, the House of Representatives is not exactly the same thing as a courthouse; Congress is a unique forum in America. On the one hand, it is the most public of all fora; on the other hand, generally only Members of Congress are allowed to speak there so that the Congress may move forward with its business in an orderly fashion. The House of Representatives' rules prohibit political demonstrations in the galleries, but technically applause is a political demonstration and that rule is relaxed during the State of the Union Address. Applause, cheers, whistling, hissing, and booing are all tolerated during a major speech like that; and the speech is broadcast to the entire country (indeed, the entire world) and it is about as public an event as Congress has.

So it's an easy call. Cindy Sheehan and Bill Young's wife should have been permitted to wear their T-shirts without arrest. If they had done something inconsistent with the purpose of the proceedings that night, it might be another thing, but those aren't the facts; neither of them did anything to disrupt the President giving his speech. But in particular, Sheehan's arrest demonstrates a reflexive attack on dissent which is decidedly un-American. Agree with her or not, like her or not, but at its fundament, America is about her right to wear that T-shirt.

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