Was free speech on mute during the conventions?


Story highlights

Hardly anyone used the 'free speech zones' at the conventions

The zones were set aside for protesters, others to voice their views

Protesters complained zones were too far from the action in Tampa, Charlotte

Free speech zones first established in 1988 in Atlanta amid protests over abortion

Charlotte, North Carolina CNN —  

Shane Brown squeezed through a gap between sections of a steel security fence 9 feet high, picked his way across a vacant lot infested with fire ants and climbed atop a rickety wooden platform. He stepped up and spoke into the microphone:

“God is a good, good God.”

His words were amplified over a hardscrabble patch of earth wedged against a highway the locals call the inner loop. White plastic trash bins stood sentry against litter, but there was no one there to fill them.

Brown, the first speaker to take the platform Wednesday at the official “free speech zone” of the Democratic National Convention, had an audience of just three – two city workers and a reporter. It was shortly before 3 p.m., and the place had been deserted since it opened five hours earlier.

If a man – be he a protester, a prophet or a pothead – talks to a dozen trash cans in a vacant lot half a mile from a bustling political convention, does he make a sound?

Without pausing to ponder the question, Brown simply turned and faced the massive traffic jam behind him on Stonewall Street, ironically in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It may have been a captive audience, but at least it was an audience.

“God is a good, good God,” he began again.

And then, the generator powering the sound system shut down. A city worker fiddled with the contraption, shrugging, “I work for the Transportation Department, so of course now I’m the sound man.” Brown, meanwhile, carried on with a bullhorn, talking for nearly 40 minutes until the second speaker, also a street preacher, showed up late.

Steve Widdows’ topic was “sodomy, abortion, fornication.” He taped up signs condemning “Wicked Democrats” and “Abhor-tion.” His God apparently was not a happy God.

“It is an abomination for a king to commit wickedness,” Widdows preached, promising God’s wrath against “a former president” who, he said, phoned “innocent grandmothers” in North Carolina and told them they didn’t have to support a law that defined marriage as a union “between one man and one woman.”

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And so it went each day, until the rain came or the sun went down, whichever happened first. A preacher was followed by a speaker who wanted to legalize marijuana, who was followed by a group of atheists and agnostics, which was followed by a group of community singers. If at times it seemed like a single hand clapping in the dark, the speakers did not complain.

Widdows admits he was disappointed that no one was there to hear him preach, but he showed up all three days anyway. After using his allotted 30 minutes, he said, he’d find a street corner “where there were lots of people” and start preaching again.

“When you say you’re going to do something, you go ahead and do it,” he explained. “There was some benefit, to put the understanding on people. I decided I was just going to go ahead and preach, and if anyone hears it, use it, Lord.”

Anarchists, occupiers and other protesters in Charlotte shunned the official speakers’ area, which they sneeringly called “the pen.” Sure, some of them signed up. But they gave false agendas, never intending to show.

“We are under the impression that the whole country is a free speech zone,” said Michael Zytkow, a 26-year-old organizer for Occupy Charlotte. “We were bothered by the idea of any government-designated playground.”

Carol Sobel, a lawyer from Santa Monica, California, who co-chairs the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild, asked, “Who’d want to use it? You’re talking to yourself.”

Her group works to push back against what it views as government attempts to stifle dissent.

Sobel keeps a photograph on her desk showing her with blackened eyes from rubber police bullets at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.