Inside 'The Pen'

The FleetCenter is seen through the fence of the protest zone on Tuesday July 27, 2004.
CBS/Jarrett Murphy
CBSNews.com producer Jarrett Murphy is reporting from Boston this week.

On the outskirts of the FleetCenter, where busloads of delegates pull up for the Democratic National Convention each night, a voice echoes across the parking lot.

The speaker is not seen, because the voice comes from inside the designated "demonstration zone," which some have dubbed "the protest pen."

Set across a road from the convention center, separated by chain-link fence covered in opaque netting, ringed by barbed wire and underneath a railroad bridge guarded by military police officers, the demonstration zone has become a rallying cry for demonstrators upset that dissenting views have been confined to the space that a federal judge said evoked "an internment camp."

On Monday, a group wore black hoods to protest both the abuse at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad and the repression of free speech in Boston. On Tuesday, demonstrators — most of them from an anti-abortion rights group — wore white gags and posted signs reading "this is a farce" and "pens aren't for people."

A district judge ruled last Thursday that the protest site, while "an offense to the spirit of the First Amendment," was legal given the space constraints outside the FleetCenter and concerns that violent protests seen at the Los Angeles convention might be repeated. An appeals court backed the district court ruling on Monday.

That ruling, and the fact that the convention is nearly half over, means the end of the legal battle, Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union executive director Carol Rose said on Tuesday. The chances of Supreme Court intervention are "next to nil."

"We don't believe in having First Amendment cages," Rose said. "We just think that there's a real sad irony to the fact that the First Amendment is being laid on the doorstep of a political convention to trample on."

The pen measures 26,000 to 28,000 square feet. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock wrote that, "a written description cannot begin to convey the ambience of the DZ site."

"It is a grim, mean, and oppressive space," Woodlock wrote. He added that it's "a brutish and potentially unsafe place," and that it "conveys the symbolic sense of a holding pen where potentially dangerous persons are separated from others."

But citing the experience at earlier events like the 2000 L.A. convention, Woodlock decided the protest zone was "reasonable," because demonstrators have pushed over fences, "squirted liquids such as bleach or urine at delegates or police," and thrown objects over fences.

"In short, there is no way to 'tweak' the (zone) to improve plaintiffs' free speech opportunities without increasing a safety hazard," he wrote.

Authorities originally planned to allow up to 4,000 people in the space, but safety concerns led them to reduce that number to 1,000. The U.S. government said it had specific intelligence regarding a security threat to the convention but would not reveal it in the presence of the plaintiffs, the judge wrote.

In the demonstration zone, the area itself has become the issue.

On Monday, two "guards" wearing sunglasses, black boots and DNC T-shirts ordered around a group of about 30 "detainees" in black hoods with their hands tied behind their backs. The guards told their prisoners to walk, turn, hop, kneel and stand. The guards "beat" some of their charges.

"What, you don't like the protest pen?" the guard yelled at a cowering detainee.

"They're trying to protect these high-level government meetings … and marginalize the voices of those who would dissent," said David Meieran of the Save Our Civil Liberties campaign, which organized Monday's event.

His colleague, MIT student Gan Golan, blamed "the national climate" for the restrictions.

"It's not so much coming from local agencies, they're definitely being enlisted in this effort, but it's when federal agencies are being put in command of what local officers are doing," Golan said.

At the protest Tuesday, most of the demonstrators were young members of a group called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. Were it not for the protest pen, Sauna Layman, of Crestline, Calif., said she "would be protesting abortion and Kerry's support for abortion."

"When you say that life begins at conception, and yet you give money to abortion groups … it ends a pregnancy, and it ends a life," Layman said.

Earlier, though, she had focused her scorn on the pen.

"We are penned up like the Jews were by the Germans," she said. "Are we no better than Hitler?"

But since free speech ruled, at least within the confines of the zone, there were dissenters to the dissent.

"You can walk wherever you want in Boston," Matthew Lavoie of Boston chided the demonstrators. "You can say whatever you want."

"There's no one listening to what you have to say," said Paul Shanley, also of Boston, noting the sparse crowd of a few dozen protesters and media.

The ACLU's Rose attributes the low numbers of protesters to the police restrictions.

"When people saw that it was an internment camp most groups chose not to use it. The 'camp' has served its purpose of chilling speech," Rose said.

Around the city, Rose sees an overwhelming police presence. "In many instances the police have outnumbered the protesters significantly," she claims.

The Joint Information Center, which disseminates information about security at the convention, did not dispute that cops have outnumbered demonstrators "in some instances." A JIC spokeswoman said there have been no convention-related arrests.

By Jarrett Murphy