Censoring Dissent

Jessica Maxwell

During times of war, the restrictions on our free speech become increasingly obvious. The Syracuse Peace Council (SPC) experienced a backlash against dissent in the weeks leading up to the US invasion of Iraq. We have worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to address these issues where possible, but unfortunately, as much of our public space becomes privatized, there are fewer and fewer spaces that can legally be held accountable to constitutional standards for free speech. SPC held a joint news conference with the ACLU on March 12 to raise awareness of local censorship of anti-war messages, but the backlash continues as the US attack on Iraq escalates.

Tabling at Carousel Mall
In December 2002, SPC sought and received permission to have an informational table at the Carousel Center after partnering with the American Friends Service Committee to obtain the requisite $1 million liability insurance. The experience was so positive that we decided to make it a regular presence, and Carousel agreed to allow us to table one weekend each month. January and February proved to be even more successful – an incredible amount of literature was distributed to many people not actively involved in the anti-war movement, including a number of local soldiers. We scheduled subsequent dates for March 14-16 and mid-April. However, on February 27, we received a call from Carousel General Manager Rob Schoeneck, stating that Carousel was reconsidering their policy and was no longer comfortable with our presence due to the “political situation.” Even though they had not received a single complaint regarding our presence in three months, and we had complied with all regulations and policies, they cancelled all tabling dates for the near future, including the dates that had already been approved for March and April. SPC sent a letter protesting the decision that was subsequently released to local media.

Ads on Centro Busses
The day after the US attack on Iraq began, ten Centro busses hit the road featuring a “No War on Iraq” ad designed and placed by SPC. We originally submitted a more hard-hitting ad that Centro and Normal Communications (the ad agency that works with Centro) rejected in January. Only after the threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU (Centro is government funded and therefore must respect constitutionally protected free speech) and six weeks of negotiation did they agree to carry any image that featured an anti-war message. One of the elements they were most opposed to in the original ad was the image of Iraqi children. They found it “too disturbing” for our ad to contain any images of people. We find it to be much more disturbing to be silent when our own government violates international law to engage in a war of aggression that will result in death and injury for thousands of people.

Trying for a Billboard
While we were negotiating with Centro, we attempted to buy billboard space with Lamar Outdoor Advertising and were frustrated to find that they were unwilling to accept any image that featured the text “No War on Iraq,” despite our willingness to pay full price for the ad. So much for the myth of the “free market.” Since they are a private company, we have no legal basis for contesting their decision.

Green Ribbon
Dozens of businesses, schools and churches in CNY are distributing green ribbons to symbolize support for troops and opposition to the war. The week before the bombing began, we received a phone call from a local coffee shop that had agreed to be a distribution site for SPC’s green ribbon campaign. They were concerned about one sentence on the display flyer: “We do not believe that Iraq poses an imminent threat to its neighbors in the Middle East, nor does it pose an immediate threat to the United States.” They admitted that they had received no actual complaints from customers. In fact, they had already collected several dollars in donations from people who picked up ribbons to wear. Nonetheless, they were concerned about a potential backlash from customers who might disagree with the anti-war position expressed on the flyer, and based on this fear, they asked us to remove the display.

Tabling at F-M High School
In early March SPC was invited to set up a table during “Volunteer Week” at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. We brought materials produced by SPC, including Peace Newsletters, fliers on upcoming events, and pieces produced by Youth Empowerment for Peace (YEP), a high school peace group meeting at the Peace Council. The associate principal took a sample of each, and stated that we could have nothing on the table other than our sign. Anything mentioning the war on Iraq was not allowed. Fortunately, several students understood what the Syracuse Peace Council might be working on, and left addresses for materials to be sent to them.

Jessica is an SPC staff member who has been working on increasing the visibility of the anti-war movement. Please contact her at SPC if you have relevant ideas or skills (especially artistic) to share.