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Have Free Speech Rights Been Trampled in the Reaction to Ferguson MO Protests?

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  A Syracuse University Free Speech expert finds a couple examples of how constitutional rights might have been trampled during the protests in Ferguson, MissouriRoy Gutterman is Director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at S-U’s Newhouse School of Communications.  He calls police suppression of citizens scary, like a military crackdown.  Gutterman admits violence made the protests more difficult, but law enforcement has more than one role.

“Police have an obligation to protect people and protect their rights.  One of the greatest rights we have in this democracy is the right to petition the government and to complain and to speak out and to express yourself.  It’s the government’s role to protect that right.” 

He remembers covering as a reporter a Ku Klux Klan rally, but police in advance had put up fences and barriers to separate the sides – and to protect the right of speech and assembly.   

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Some tactics used by police in Ferguson MO appeared militaristic, perhaps infringing on free assembly and protest rights.

  In Missouri police arrested and perhaps intimidated two national journalists.  Gutterman sees that as another suppression of speech. 

“I realize there’s a lot of emotion going on on all sides in this and I can understand police not wanting to be photographed or interview.  But if reporters weren’t there and CNN wasn’t there, nobody would know what was going on; this would be swept under the rug.  One of the only reasons government sometimes behaves ethically or legally is because there’s somebody watching and that somebody’s the press.” 

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Preserving free press rights, Gutterman explains, is important not only for the specific incident of the fatal shooting by police near St. Louis.

Gutterman does believe that after tensions die down, the Ferguson, Missouri protests will spark a useful debate over free speech rights for both citizens and the press.