News: The Myth of Your Rights

This land is their land, this sidewalk is their...

Nov 1, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes

It only looks like "Heil Hitler": Police order a journalist off the sidewalk.

It turns out our constitutional rights are worth whatever the people with the guns decide they're worth, and nothing more.

When the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce announced Vice President Dick Cheney would speak Oct. 25 at The Phoenix restaurant downtown, CityBeat, whose building is across the street, invited protesters to stand on the sidewalk and greet him. We were laboring under the myth that people in this country have certain rights, including the right to protest and the right to use a public sidewalk.

We also believed the United States respected the right to freedom of the press. The reality is quite different.

On the day of Cheney's visit, Secret Service agents and Cincinnati Police officers threw up a massive security cordon, forcing a small group of protesters to stand a block away on Ninth Street. A pair of protesters who wanted to stand in front of CityBeat were ordered off the sidewalk. They stood in CityBeat's lobby, holding their sign against the glass door facing across Race Street to The Phoenix.

When I stepped on the sidewalk with a reporter's notebook, a man in a suit asked me to go inside. When I declined, he summoned Officer Robert Nelson of the Cincinnati Police Intelligence Unit, who asked me to step inside the CityBeat building.

A man Nelson referred to as a federal agent arrived, refusing to identify himself. I explained that I was a working member of the press. The unnamed agent offered to escort me to a "secure area" around the corner. I explained that I wanted to report on police behavior right where I stood, in front of our building.

Nelson then asked me again to go inside. When I declined, he ordered me.

"This is now an order," he said. "If you don't comply, I will lock you up right now."

When I went inside, a mounted Cincinnati Police officer stationed his horse in front of the doorway, using the horse to block the protesters and me from leaving through the front door.

The next day civil rights lawyer Bob Newman said the police and Secret Service violated my rights and those of the two protesters.

"That's a First Amendment violation," he said.

What then is a citizen to do? We could sue, but the exercise would almost certainly be futile, according to Newman.

"It would cost $500 in filing fees, about $400 in other fees and two years of mucking through bullshit in federal court to get an award of $100," he said.

And that, fellow Americans, is what your constitutional rights are worth today — if you go through the hassle of trying to enforce them. ©