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Fri, Feb. 21

Supreme Court, others uphold right to protest

Toni Smith is the sort of person who makes me proud to be an American. She's the Manhattanville College basketball player who has been protesting what she sees as this country's shortcomings by turning away from the flag during the playing of the national anthem.

Crowds have booed, jeered and vilified the senior guard. Spectators waving American flags have confronted her and accused her of betraying our soldiers.

Hers is just one of many recent examples proving that the American tradition of robust dissent is alive and well, despite efforts by some to suppress protests they dislike. Judging from the e-mail she's gotten on the subject, Manhattanville vice president Mary Corrarino told The New York Times, "There are many who would like to see us all arrested."

Smith has a number of complaints about her government, including economic inequality, but she's generated particular rancor for making an antiwar gesture just as we're about to commence hostilities with Iraq. One reporter asked if she was giving comfort to Saddam Hussein, and some fans said she was insulting veterans by refusing to pay tribute to the flag.

Are we supposed to think that antiwar gestures are OK anytime except when there's an actual possibility of war? The idea that Hussein takes his lead from American protesters is preposterous. Even if he did, that's no reason for us all to close our eyes and mouths till the war is over.

And why should veterans feel insulted if citizens exercise one of the freedoms that soldiers have died to preserve? There's nothing unpatriotic about Smith's effort to get her country to realize what she sees as its best ideals.

She isn't the only dissenter facing pressure to put a sock in it. Brett Barber, a high school student in Dearborn Heights, Mich., showed his opinion of the impending war by wearing a T-shirt bearing President Bush's visage and the words "International Terrorist." School administrators insisted that he remove the shirt or turn it inside out.

The ACLU of Michigan says the school has two choices: either let Barber display his message or face a lawsuit. There's not much doubt the school would lose. In a landmark 1969 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a school that suspended students who wore black armbands protesting the Vietnam War.

Students, it pointed out then, do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Unless Barber's shirt causes significant disruption, which it apparently didn't, the school has to put up with it.

You may think that anyone who breaks the law deserves what he gets. But it's the nature of political demonstrations that people with passionate opinions sometimes get carried away and fail to keep their behavior in strict conformity to the law.

Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, who helped draft the statute in question, said a group could be sued for as few as two illegal acts over the course of 10 years.

Like a lot of protesters who have engaged in civil disobedience, Scheidler was prepared to go to jail for breaking laws. He just wasn't willing to lose everything he owns. Others could use NOW's approach, as several Supreme Court justices noted during oral arguments, against civil rights sit-ins.

Had NOW won, some might have used this tactic against feminist groups. Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, has been urging the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women, and she's planning to demonstrate at the Masters golf tournament. But she says if her group can't get a permit to protest near the club, she may resort to an illegal demonstration. Would Burk want to risk everything she owns for that gesture?

Probably not. But thanks to the Supreme Court, she won't have to. Burk and Scheidler may not have much in common, but they both benefit from policies granting ample space for protest. So do we all.

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