Paper rights

On Monday, Dahlia Lithwick and Raymond Vasvari had a few things to say on Slate about new restrictions on protesters in the US, courtesy of the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act. In short, the bill “adjusts” existing law

while the old law made it a federal offense to “willfully and knowingly” enter a restricted space, now prosecutors need only show that you did it “knowingly”—that you knew the area was restricted, even if you didn’t know it was illegal to enter the space.

Lithwick and Vasvari point out that given the proliferation of “restricted areas” in the last decade or so, this seemingly minor change may have dramatic consequences for the practice of political protest in the US, making it easier to prosecute political speech in any undesired location as a federal crime.

It’s interesting to read this news as I’ve been reading about (and carefully attending a few) political protests in Russia, where citizens also have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Yes, indeed, they do: Articles 29 and 31 are quite clear. (Check out the other enumerated rights, too! It’s not hard to guess the historical experience motivating many of them.) But as many activists here point out, rights on paper are not necessarily rights in practice.

Riot police have detained some 50 protesters who picketed Moscow’s television tower on March 18 to register anger over a state television broadcast that appeared aimed at smearing the country’s political opposition […] The unsanctioned protest action followed state-controlled NTV’s airing of footage purporting to show people being paid to rally against Vladimir Putin, who was declared the winner of a March 4 presidential election. (RFE/RL)

Two opposition activists were arrested Sunday evening in Nizhny Novgorod for having attempted to erect tents on a central city square, Interfax reported. The two activists, one of which works for independent election watchdog Golos, were campaigning as part of “Strategy 31,” which supports the section of the constitution that provides for the right to public assembly. (The Moscow Times)

…The two women, Maria Alyokhin and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were arrested on the eve of Sunday’s presidential election as part of an investigation into Pussy Riot, an all-female band of activists formed late last year. During the election campaign, the group staged a number of provocative performances in public spaces, culminating in a “punk prayer service” last month on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. (The New York Times)

You may not be surprised to find that there are always official justifications for these arrests: safety and security, fighting public disorder, detaining those who disobey police orders. Some of these may sound familiar.

Questions of what rights are, how they’re enacted, who gets to have them–these are things I’ll be thinking about, and I don’t have much to say yet. What does it take to keep rights alive in practice, and not merely on paper?



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