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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, July 02, 2022

Keep your mouth shut, or else

Whether you participate in protests or ignore them, the right to express political dissent is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Americans have always liked to claim that we hold especially dear the right of free speech, and that our stance of ensuring wide and open discourse sets us apart from other nations. However, recently there have been disturbing trends that threaten to expose our free speech-loving professions to be nothing more than idle boasts. 




Today, four activists from Drake University in Iowa will go before a grand jury, and the university itself has been subpoenaed for all records relating to an anti-war forum at the campus Nov. 15. Copies of the subpoenas obtained by The Associated Press demand the university hand over \all documents indicating the purpose and intended participants in the meeting, all documents or recordings which would identify persons that actually attended the meeting."" Legal action of this sort is believed to have occurred last in the 1950s in the hunt for communists. 




On a broader level, the new vogue word is ""free speech zone,"" which describes areas that are more than a mile away from where the president is speaking. Anyone with an anti-Bush sign is shuffled off to these zones. Those with and without pro-Bush signs are often allowed within 50 feet of the president and face no sanctions. A number of demonstrators who have tried to display signs with messages critical of the administration in the midst of these unencumbered crowds have been arrested. Political speech is protected it seems, but only if it is expressing the right idea. 




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On a campus that has a long history of being at the forefront of social action, these developments should be particularly disturbing. From the turbulent 1960s to recent anti-war efforts, places like Library Mall and Bascom Hill have been sites of innumerable protests. Many of those who participate are not hardcore activists, but people who find resonance in the idea being expressed, and maybe for the first time decide to publicly support it. Now imagine if at the next protest there was someone for the government writing down who was in attendance. Or if the next time the president came to Madison, students were arrested or shuffled away for expressing dissent. 




The effect of such policies is to chill political speech. It takes those who believe in something and attaches repercussions to holding that belief. Many of the people who would have otherwise expressed their dissent hold back. What this does is create the illusion that such opinion is the function of a radical few and not the broader community. 




??Efforts to hide dissent, and in the case of Drake University, initiate legal action to determine who is dissenting, directly counter the foundations of free speech in this country. These are not cases where violence was used or where threats were made. In the Drake University case, a protest the next day saw 12 people arrested. The forum itself gave training in non-violent resistance. In the case of ""free speech zones,"" the individual need only raise a sign against the administration outside the zone (and in most cases in areas where other, pro-Bush demonstrators have signs) to risk being arrested. 




It does not matter what your political beliefs are; threats to free speech threaten us all equally. Of most importance is that these threats are called out as soon as they take shape. It is only a few small steps until the right to dissent encroachments on free speech is lost.

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