Free speech, unless politicians don't like it

I was mildly surprised, to say the least, to read that the Supreme Court has ruled 7-2 that the president and his staff have the right to remove people from public speeches on the basis of their bumper stickers ("Court rebuffs 2 ousted from '05 Bush speech," Oct. 13). Upon discovering that a woman and her friend had come to the speech in a car with a bumper sticker reading "No Blood for Oil," officials ejected them from the event, despite their possession of paid tickets. The Secret Service has admitted that this was the sole reason, and thus we are given to believe that there is nothing to suggest these women had intentions to do anything disruptive or even mildly distracting, which I can only assume is the rationale for their removal.

At the same time, the court is preparing to rule on whether or not protesters have to right to picket while displaying vulgar and offensive messages at a funeral. The general attitude among the press and public is that this is an issue of free speech, although some consider this to be an oversimplification of the situation.

It is difficult to even know where to begin on the questions these cases raise together, but it is possible to get the general feel of the situation. Apparently, while the court believes that it is perfectly fine to remove attendees from a public government event for what amounts to simply "one of the staffers doesn't like the mass-produced slogans plastered on the back of your vehicle," the question of whether it is OK to bar protesters at a private funeral for deliberately being disruptive and provocative is a real stumper. In other words, waving a distasteful sign at something you're not invited to is considered free speech; having a tame bumper sticker on the back of your car at a public forum is not.

This is not the first example of such an attitude from the government, either. Let's take a trip to the national convention of your choice, either Democratic or Republican. Perhaps you'd like to protest the views of whichever party is in attendance. To do so, you must remain in the designated protest area, which is just over here, behind this fence, back where nobody who matters can see you. Have fun! Don't forget to make some extra noise when you're through, so the officials can remember to come over and let you out to go home. The serious party business of deciding who we should all vote for is protected from the riff-raff outside, but this seems to be a protection that may not apply to mourning the death of a soldier who was killed while fighting because the people in those national conventions sent him there.

Ultimately, the funeral protest case is one that weighs the concepts of the right to free speech, assembly, and expression against the right to be left in peace and the arguably tenuous right to privacy. Where do the rights of one group begin and the rights of another group end? There is no easy answer here, especially since this case is expected to set a precedent for future rulings. I believe, however, that the court has already painted themselves into a corner with their ruling on the ejection of the women from the speech. The court has set the precedent that the government is allowed to remove not only those who are protesting but those who may hold different opinions in general, and there is no good reason to prevent this prerogative from applying to private citizens; given the stigma in a democracy of the government silencing protest, I would say that a private citizen has far more of a right to claim to this privilege.

If the Supreme Court rules that the protesters cannot be barred from the funerals, however, it will be sending a fundamental unpleasant message reaffirming what is becoming a trend: free speech is universal, except when it gets in the way of politicians.

Owen Baron, Baltimore

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