Tonawanda News

September 18, 2012

CONFER: The assault on free speech

By Bob Confer
The Tonawanda News

— We’re 11 years removed from the 9/11 attacks and it seems like such a different world. Or, at least, a different America.

A land once ripe with unabated liberty is one now governed by tyranny. A police state is allowed to persist under the guise of “security” and some bastardized premise of freedom. Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations thought and think nothing of eavesdropping on phone calls and emails without warrant; indefinitely detaining our people while stripping them of their citizenship, rights and dignity; molesting men, women and children in our airports; and stifling expression by limiting what can be said and where whilst profiling the far-right (Constitutionalists) and far-left (Occupy activists) as terrorists.

This isn’t just a federal issue. Following the lead of Uncle Sam (who’s also a Big Brother to all), metropolises like New York City (and its famed surveillance system and quasi-military cops) have found it attractive to do the same. And, so have smaller communities.

Take Hornell for example. In a February 2011 column for this paper (http://tinyurl.com/ConferHornell) I looked at how that very small city of 9,000 created its own domestic spying program by placing 32 cameras throughout the community that were monitored 24/7 by the police department. Mind you, it’s a city where crime rates are but a fraction of the national average. So, with minimal criminal element present, just who is being observed?

That camera system hasn’t been very popular with local residents. That disdain, though, didn’t set any sort of precedent in city hall. Hornell’s leaders still can’t seem to fathom rights – especially the natural rights identified in the US Constitution – as made evident by what transpired over the past month.

For the past 8 years, Main Street of Hornell been frequented by a troubadour named Noah Carlton, who with guitar in hand, sings Christian music on Saturdays and Sundays to passers-by. In August the local Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the mayor, saying that Carlton’s continued presence inhibits business growth in the burgh by turning away prospective customers and investors.

So, in response to that long-simmering complaint, city attorney Joe Pelych crafted a law that – just like post-9/11 terrorism efforts —uses one incident to justify government actions that would wipe out over 200 years of civilized liberty. Under the proposed law, the city would provide “a designated public forum for individuals and groups to exercise their free speech rights.” It said that “it shall be unlawful for any individual or group of individuals to gather, remain, walk or stand upon any given street or sidewalk in the City of Hornell to protest, support or exercise free speech by voice, sign or any other means unless they are in the designated area as defined by law.” To that end, it required that anyone interested in speaking in that area needed to first file an application with the Mayor’s office and that they could not use voice amplifiers unless authorized. Violators would have been hit with $250 in fines or 15 days in jail.

Basically, the law would have abridged the freedom of speech to the point that any parties in disagreement with the government would first have to petition that government for the right to peaceful assembly in protest of that government in a public setting. The Council could, at its whim, deny assembly and arrest anyone involved in the unpermitted expression of supposedly-free speech. Not to sound clichéd, but that’s what you’d expect out of North Korea or Nazi Germany. The Founding Fathers must have been rolling in their graves.

Luckily, common sense prevailed. A few dozen people protested the rule and Mayor Shawn Hogan and his council struck the proposal in the Law and Ordinance Committee. But, even so, they definitely had the intent to push the law: Why did it get as far as it did, to the written stage, and not just stay a bad idea? They even matter-of-factly compared it to the designated free speech zones around political conventions. But, a whole city as a free (read “restricted”) speech zone?

Don’t think that because Hornell is some far-flung town nestled in the Southern Tier that this sort of behavior won’t affect you. If they can broach this there, they can broach it here in Niagara and Orleans counties or anywhere across this great land. It’s nothing unusual, either: Think about your freedoms and liberties in Modern America. Are you better off than you were 11 years ago?

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.