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Want to know what is on our minds? Find blog posts written here, by the City Club staff, members, and partners. Every week you can find a new edition of #FreeSpeech in the News — a collection of related stories, commentary, and opinions on free speech in the 21st century that’s making the news. You’ll also find takes on current events, past forums, and issues surrounding Northeast Ohio. Read on for all things City Club.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

#FREESPEECH in the News February 16, 2021

Bliss Davis, Content and Programming Coordinator, The City Club of Cleveland

#FREESPEECH in the News February 16, 2021

As the Citadel of Free Speech here in Cleveland, we work to protect and promote the basis of our democracy by sharing related stories, commentary, and opinions on free speech in the 21st century. Here's what's making the news – and what you should know about – in the past week.

1.) Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse

At least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities have attacked, detained, prosecuted, and in some cases killed critics, broken up peaceful protests, closed media outlets, and enacted vague laws criminalizing speech that they claim threatens public health. The victims include journalists, activists, healthcare workers, political opposition groups, and others who have criticized government responses to the coronavirus.

“Governments should counter Covid-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic.”

Governments and other state authorities should immediately end excessive restrictions on free speech in the name of preventing the spread of Covid-19 and hold to account those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Council in its session beginning February 22, 2021, should commission a new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights focusing on states’ compliance with their human rights obligations in responding to Covid-19, including the impact of restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly.

2.) Trump acquitted in Senate impeachment trial that hinged on free speech fallacy

On Saturday, the Senate voted 57-43 to acquit former President Donald Trump on the single article of impeachment for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. Without polling the senators individually, we can’t know exactly what prompted the 43 Republicans to vote against holding Trump accountable. But in the weeks and months ahead, we may hear free speech used often as an excuse for acquittal.

Impeachment lawyers for Trump closed their defense by arguing, in large part, that his speech on the morning of Jan. 6 is protected First Amendment speech. They conclude, as a result, that he cannot be impeached. This is incorrect. The First Amendment isn’t a defense to impeachment proceedings, like it could be to criminal charges. Even if it was, Trump wouldn’t be entitled to it.

The First Amendment can be offered as a defense to prosecution in a criminal case. If you’re indicted and an element of the alleged crime includes an exercise of your First Amendment rights, then you may have a defense that prevents your conviction. But that defense only goes so far.

3.) Port Orange ordinance restricting panhandling moves forward despite free speech concerns

At a special meeting Thursday, the Port Orange City Council voted to advance an ordinance that would place restrictions on panhandling. The council voted unanimously to approve a first reading of the ordinance.

A second reading is set to take place Feb. 9, at which point it will go into effect if passed. Mayor Don Burnette says aggressive panhandling has become a major problem in the city.

“We’ve been watching and the problem has been getting progressively worse.”

However, civil liberties advocates feel the ordinance could be a violation of a person’s right to free speech. The ordinance mirrors a similar measure passed in Daytona Beach that requires panhandlers to remain at least 20 feet from ATMs, businesses, and bus stops, and 150 feet from major intersections.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jackie Azis describes the ordinance as “misguided” and potentially unconstitutional.

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