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Give the peace activists a break

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 12, 2010 7:20 AM

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Grinnell resident Christine Gaunt used to mail letters to her senators and sit in their offices holding antiwar signs. Her presence was becoming expected, though, so she decided to use a stronger method.

Throughout the year, Gaunt has staged "die-ins" in the Des Mointes offices of Iowa Sens. Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin to protest the United States' wars abroad. The demonstrations involved tracing her outline in chalk and lying down on the floor, pretending to be dead. When it was time for the building to close, the police usually removed her from the building and sometimes issued her a citation. In August, she was arrested on trespassing charges, and Polk County prosecutors initially requested she be banned from the Federal Building. While prosecutors have since retracted their call for a ban, Gaunt is awaiting sentencing and could spend up to 60 days in jail and face a $1,300 fine.

Arresting and convicting Gaunt for demonstrating is too severe, and 60 days of jail time would be an excessive punishment for a nonviolent protest. Prosecutors were right to drop their request to prohibit Gaunt from a federal office building that is paid for by her tax dollars and used by her elected officials; such an action would be an egregious infringement of her First Amendment rights.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Gaunt's right to free speech, and her freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances all allow her to enter the Federal Building in Des Moines.

However, the state is justified in removing her when the building closes, and by issuing citations when she refuses to move, the state is not excessively limiting her rights.

Beyond the subject of the constitutionality of the ban and the arrest is the subject of whether Gaunt should be given citations in the first place, said Timothy Hagle, a UI political-science associate professor and constitutional-law expert.

The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that the right to free speech is not absolute. Some classes of speech are unprotected, such as obscenity or "fighting words." With regard to protected speech, there are certain "time, place, and manner restrictions" that can be imposed.

In the 1968 case United States v. O'Brien</a>, the court ruled that there are some instances where "incidental limitations on First Amendment freedoms" are allowable as long as they comply with a certain set of guidelines. The guidelines, often referred to as the "O'Brien test," require any speech regulation to serve a substantial government interest and not excessively limit First Amendment rights.

The citations for Gaunt are just such a time, place, and manner restriction. Gaunt was never removed from the building until the building's closing hours, when the building needs to be cleaned and emptied. The federal government does have a substantial interest in ensuring federal business runs smoothly and efficiently, and Gaunt was slightly impeding that function.

That the building is publicly owned affects Gaunt's case symbolically but not legally. Hagle said public buildings that are not designated for public speech do not have to be treated as open forums. Citizens are not allowed to run onto a military base and lie down in front of fighter jets, nor can they run onto the Senate floor while a vote is taking place and lie down in front of a senator.

Dissent and questioning of government policies is vital to a robust democracy; actions that curtail nonviolent criticism should be rejected by all citizens.

As Gaunt pointed out in an interview with the Editorial Board, the inconvenience posed by stepping over her in the hallway is insignificant compared to the inconveniences caused by America's wars.

We agree. Gaunt is exercising her rights as a U.S. citizen. Her voice should not be supressed, and her punishment should be proportional to the miniscule nuisance she has caused.


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