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Zick: 'Speech Out of Doors'

  • Timothy Zick
    Timothy Zick  The law professor at the College of William and Mary believes the public should be concerned about a shrinking space for public expression.  
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As free speech in cyberland proliferates, opportunities for expression in the real world continue to shrink, according to Timothy Zick, professor of law at the College of William and Mary. Pressures to impose public order, post-9/11 security fears and a public that wants to be comfortable in public spaces are among factors leading to a shrinking “expressive topography,” Zick says. He believes we should be worried. He wrote Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Spaces to draw attention to the situation.

The book divides the “expressive topography” in which restrictions to speech are occurring in terms of spaces. Three of the spaces are the "embodied," the "contested" and the "inscribed."

Concerning embodied space, the sphere of personal interaction, Zick credits the Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other groups, with helping to secure rights of contact. He takes issue with recent abortion-clinic decisions that seek to place a “bubble” around patrons: it could be brought to bear in broader circumstances, he says.  He fears the courts have retreated from what he calls the “once-settled proposition that audiences enjoy no general right to ‘privacy’ in public places.”

Speakers choose contested places for reasons that include audience access and symbolism.  The Civil Rights movement chose a Woolworth’s lunch counter and Cindy Sheehan chose a road leading to George Bush’s “Summer White House,” Zick says. He fears government agencies increasingly are using “expressive zoning” and permit schemes to keep speakers separated from their sites of choice.

Inscribed spaces, according to Zick, are those that often bear almost “sacred” connotation in a democracy. Such places, including streets, parks , capitols etc., also are increasingly subject to permit schemes. These have the result of “institutionalizing” what sociologists refer to as “public contention,” Zick says.  “Public-order management systems have led to situations in which protesters negotiate with law-enforcement agencies the terms of their protestors, right down to the number of arrests,” he adds.

In Speech Out of Doors, Zick brings to bear insights from numerous disciplines regarding the understanding of place. “In law, we tend to treat place as property,” he says. “It struck me that anthropologists, social scientists and others had a deeper understanding of place. I tried to draw on that knowledge to construct a different notion of place, not as something inanimate but as a thing connected to an active speaker.”

Throughout the book, Zick considers the desire on the part of citizens to be a fundamental impulse leading to restrictions of space for public discourse. “We have got to be careful not to shield ourselves from everything that may be uncomfortable,” he says. “Shielding ourselves, I believe, has become part of a trend.”