Protecting the right to free speech during the RNC

by Bob Triozzi , Director of the Department of Law
The Republican National Convention held here last week was the perfect opportunity for our Cleveland community to express its true identity to a national and global audience. By all accounts, we nailed it. As County Executive Budish said, “visitors and viewers from around the world saw first-hand what a great place this is to live, work, and play.” Our identity as a vibrant, thriving, and beautiful city and region was clearly enhanced over the several days of the convention. 

What the world also saw was that our commitment to hospitality, civility, and diversity are also an integral characteristic of our Cleveland civic identity. I enjoyed walking each day up Euclid Avenue, over to East 4th, and down to Public Square taking in the sights and sounds of the downtown community and our guests fully engaged in the vibrancy and discourse of a truly public event. And the newly designed Public Square was a perfect demonstration of a City’s commitment to create a space for the public’s use, enjoyment and in particular for this event, the public’s expression. 

I certainly heard it all during my walks to Public Square. Some of the discourse was poignant, some of it aggravating, some of it funny, and, of course, a bit of it was vulgar. There was artistic expression, written expression, and musical expression (some quite good, some not so much). There were signs, and buttons, and masks and costumes. Black, white, brown, male, female, trans, suits, t-shirts, young, old, pro, con, loud, silent, activists, observers, smiles, scowls, reds, blues, greens, independents, libertarians, socialists, even a few communists. Nothing is more fundamental to our identity as Americans than our belief in free speech. And nothing is more fundamental to our identity as Clevelanders, as demonstrated last week, than to respect, protect and enjoy that right. 

triozziblog2The truth is that it is not always simple and easy to do that. There was considerable concern in the weeks leading up to the convention that the vigorous public debate seen in this election year could give way to violent confrontation. And there was concern that our natural fear of this violence would give rise to restrictions on people’s right to express themselves. Over the course of our nation’s history, this balancing act over free speech and public safety has been the source of much legal wrangling. However, in what has clearly become part of our region’s collaborative identity, to address these constitutional challenges our legal community came together to work through the issues that we faced leading up to the convention. Led by Anne Rowland, Senior Counsel for U.S. Secret Service, Rick Horvath, Chief Corporate Counsel for the City of Cleveland, and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown, the committee met over several months in a concerted effort to ensure that people’s First Amendment rights would be protected here during the convention. Participants included legal representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the County Prosecutor’s Office, the County Law Department, the Cleveland Law Department, the County Public Defender’s Office, Metroparks, RTA, the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the NAACP, and Cleveland law firms. We did our best to address the issues and challenges at hand and prepare for the foreseeable contingencies that might possibly develop. As these things go, some of the differences needed to be ironed out through Court mediation, but it was clear to me that the professional approach and relationships that developed over the months laid the groundwork for the development of the 1st Amendment plan for the week of the convention. 

So we had a plan. But a plan is only as good as its execution. Once the RNC started and the demonstrations began, it was up to our law enforcement community to create the proper, safe environment. I recognize that the 1st Amendment is rooted in people’s fear of governmental repression of free speech, but what I consistently witnessed last week was government’s effort and commitment in ensuring that people’s rights were protected. On occasion, officers on foot, on bikes, and on horses, worked to create safe space, not to thwart free expression, but to allow for it. Protecting our rights at the same time protecting our safety - it’s an awfully fine line we ask our law enforcement to walk in these situations. By most accounts, it’s a line our law enforcement successfully walked last week with professionalism and with distinction.

triozziblog3I am grateful I had the opportunity to experience the drama of the convention last week as its soundtrack spilled into the streets of my community. I am thankful that some of our fears for the public’s safety were not realized and that by and large people were able to engage in this very public experience in meaningful ways. The week was well-planned. The plan was well-executed. And I am proud to be part of this welcoming, supportive community.