Freedom of speech and peaceful assembly are among our most precious constitutional rights, and the Boston Common is a historic space for protected political speech.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people gathered and marched in Boston to make a powerful statement against racism, hate and the system of white supremacy. Others had a permit to gather at the Parkman Bandstand on the Common.
Given the size of the crowds—and in light of the sickening violence that had occurred in Charlottesville one week earlier—it was understandable that the City of Boston and its Police Department sought to create some physical separation between the different groups that sought to express themselves. That concern, however, did not create a license for city leaders and law enforcement to favor certain people or viewpoints, which the First Amendment prohibits.
We are now concerned that preferential treatment may have occurred on Saturday.
While theoretically those who attended on Saturday had a choice about whether to stand with marchers or instead with those gathered on the Parkman Bandstand, it appears journalists were not given that same choice. Instead, we’ve been told that journalists and possibly others were prohibited from entering the barricaded area around the Bandstand.
We are also deeply concerned that a 35- to 40-yard buffer zone may have been deployed for the express purpose of preventing people on the Bandstand from being heard, particularly by journalists.
Democracy depends on the freedom of expression. The First Amendment is what defines that right—not law enforcement and local police. It was not up to the government to decide who should have been able to hear that speech.
Boston is a strong city; it would have rejected hateful messages even, and perhaps especially, if they been heard loud and clear. There is no better way to honor the First Amendment than to hear such a message and fiercely defeat it with the protected power of counter-speech.
On another key point, the ACLU of Massachusett is currently working hard to gather more facts in light of allegations of potential misuse of force by law enforcement against those peacefully protesting, including pepper spray and batons.
The ACLU of Massachusetts has consistently held police accountable—whether for interfering with people’s First Amendment rights, or for using excessive force. As champions of freedom, the ACLU will continue to fight for freedom of speech, racial justice, and equal rights for all.