By Michael Bugeja
What happens when rights converge and evaporate so stealthily that no one notices?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution has six parts, four of which-establishment and free exercise of religion, free speech and free press-are constantly in the public eye, being invoked, attacked and supported. But two of these five freedoms, assembly and petition, are being both overlooked and undermined by the Internet in this age of consumerism and government control.
To understand this phenomenon, consider Wal-Mart. Opponents of the "big box" store-often an unlikely combination of environmentalists and traditional Main Street merchants-routinely organize petition drives and protests against the megastore within the context of the First Amendment. Protesters rally neighborhood associations, appear before planning commissions, disrupt chamber of commerce meetings, collect petition signatures on the street, block construction crews and even plant community gardens to symbolize "sustainable economic growth."
Media have a field day in those gardens, documenting protests and support and supplying enlivening editorials, pro and con.
Whatever you think about Wal-Mart-or anti-megastore activists, for that matter-the factor relating public concern to the First Amendment is the importance of both symbolism and place when attempting to exercise the two often-overlooked freedoms of assembly and petition.
Amazon and eBay also damage local businesses and sustainable economies. However, activists lodge few protests against these electronic superstores because the "big box" here is a computer monitor in one's home. There is no place to assemble physically in cyberspace, although Internet chat rooms provide a virtual substitute. But there is no "there" there, so activists cannot disrupt meetings or speeches and plant gardens and themselves in front of bulldozers and authorities.
In sum, it is one thing for activists to assemble at a Wal-Mart construction site, collecting signatures to deliver to city hall, and another to solicit signatures and deliver those petitions via Microsoft Outlook attachments.
What should we make of the assault on assembly and petition associated with technology in which media have invested so heavily, promoting convergence? What happens when rights converge and evaporate so stealthily that no one notices?
Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum and former associate editorial director of USA Today, noted in an interview that assembly-"one of the orphan freedoms, along with petition"-doesn't get sufficient attention in First Amendment debates, especially ones addressing new technologies. "Freedom of expression doesn't mean much without assembly and petition because those two things are the best ways to galvanize and organize public support and get the attention of the people in power," McMasters says.
He believes that assembly is being threatened in so many venues that it is difficult to hone in on any one example. Police, in particular, have learned what McMasters calls "a very chilling technique for neutralizing and minimizing protests." Activists are "herded up and then directed and funneled into areas where wholesale arrests are made with no intent to file charges."
So-called "free speech" zones typically are located away from the place of spot news, and away from paying or official participants (as well as reporters) in events such as the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in Boston and New York this past summer, under the guises of crowd control or "security."
In effect, authorities using such tactics are removing the symbolism from assembly. But how is the symbiotic, symbolic interplay of press freedom and assembly changed in the absence of place?
Assembly, in the traditional sense, not only requires locale but also symbol to deepen awareness of abusive power or social injustice. For instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an apt symbol etched in collective conscience. How effective would that speech have been without that representative, evocative backdrop?
Because symbol has been associated with place, activists and media alike tend to target the Wal-Marts of commerce and government rather than digital counterparts that promulgate virtual rather than real access.
John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, sees a parallel between coverage of nuclear energy in his era and many uses of the Internet in the current one.
Early in his journalistic career in Tennessee, Seigenthaler learned about the importance of atomic power. "It was only after being a journalist and an editor that I realized that all those editorials we had written about safety of nuclear power and [equating the Tennessee Valley Authority to motherhood] were flawed," he said.
He believes that the public has been conditioned to think of anything on the Internet in the same way that he in another time thought about the TVA and nuclear power. "Whenever I meet technologists who are caught up in the sweep and miracle of Internet I am reminded of TVA and atomic power."
Journalists who realize this can take the first step toward adapting the First Amendment to the Internet, countering what Seigenthaler calls "big negatives in the shadows" as they relate to assembly and petition. McMasters agrees that the Internet won't eliminate these two freedoms, "but it certainly changes [them] in a dramatic way. ...It well may be that that [this] form of protest doesn't work as well or have the kind of profile that a physical presence at a new plant site might have. But we're in a transition period. ... There are compensating trends."
Activists need to consider the importance of symbols in the absence of physical place. For instance, protesters may not be able to assemble physically to oppose policies of Amazon or eBay but can organize via Internet to assemble on Wall Street or Madison Avenue-themselves symbols of virtual business-using everything from electronic tickertape to Dow Jones and Nasdaq icons.
"That kind of protest is even more powerful [than assembly at a specific site] in the economic world," McMasters states. He notes that First Amendment rights are "fluid and flexible for the simple reason that they have had to develop...survival tactics" in the wake of attempted suppression.
He encourages journalists to analyze the current environment with respect to assembly in virtual space. How can we cover such events visually or otherwise? How do we document the impact of e-commerce on community? How do we preserve fundamental freedoms like assembly and petition grounded historically in physical place?
"This powerful technology happens to be a new medium," he notes, "and we're still grappling with how these situations pose a threat so that we can find ways to turn them to freedom's cause."
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp.1,16-17.