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Thu Jul 23, 2020, 01:41 PM

Trump's crackdown on cities targets free speech

By Jennifer Petersen / The Washington Post

On Monday, President Trump announced plans to deploy Department of Homeland Security agents in Chicago as well as cities where protests against police brutality continue — Portland, Ore.; Philadelphia; New York, and Oakland, Calif. — all cities he characterized as run by “the radical left.”

The president called the situation in these cities “anarchic” and asserted federal agents need to be on the streets to restore order. This authority, the acting head of DHS argued, grants federal officials broad authority to deploy in cities against local officials’ wishes.

These actions raise many political and legal questions. Among these are questions about freedom of speech and use of the streets, or whether protesters have a right to occupy those streets. The federal government appears to believe they do not, moving to forcibly remove them in the name of public order. This is, in many ways, a clash over the meaning and extent of the public forum.

More than 80 years ago, faced with local officials who were abusing their power to suppress citizen speech, the Supreme Court created the public forum, designating city streets and parks as venues for citizen expression. At this moment, when the question of who has the authority to occupy the streets is again at issue, it is worth revisiting how and why the courts felt the need to define city streets and parks as the people’s podium. Revisiting this history highlights the unflattering differences between the political and legal commitments to freedom of speech in the late 1930s and 1940s and today.


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