Speaking out of place: First Amendment Rights Area

By Max Liboiron.

When visiting National Parks, be sure to note the location of the nearest “1st Amendment Rights Area.”

Screenshot from the National Parks Service website for the National Hall Federal Memorial in New York City. The original caption reads “This map shows the temporary change in how the public accesses Federal Hall NM.” Map by the National Park Service.

As a reminder, this is the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The National Park Service has taken Mary Douglas’ axiom that dirt is “matter out of place” and extended it to an auditory and kinetic register. According to their map, free speech, the press, assembly, and the petition of the Government is out of place in all areas of the Federal Hall National Memorial except for the right hand side of the front steps.

This mapping of auditory dirt is, we assume, in response to Occupy Wall Street‘s practice of protesting– that is, carrying signs, speaking in unison, performing skits, giving out free books and T-shirts and occasionally laying down– in public.

In her work on pollution and taboo, the foundation of discard studies, Mary Douglas reminds us that:

We are left with the old definition of dirt [or pollution] as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. (1988: 36)

The National Park Service, an arm of the American government, has set up ordered relations and the contravention of that order. Free speech, the press, and protest is ordered, in place, if it takes place on the right hand side of the steps. It does not wander about. It cannot sneak up. It cannot be dispersed. It cannot go look at the statues on the other side of the courtyard. That would be a contravention of order. Free speech may only occur in the First Amendment Rights area. Speaking out of place is, in Douglas’ words, inappropriate and disorderly. It is against the system.

I suspect this is the point of protest.

And so we have two competing dirts under-girding the National Park Service’s First Amendment Rights Area. Occupy Wall Street and their allies are protesting a contravention of an ethical order in politics and business. They are saying that the recession, worker exploitation, the largely unpunished corruption on Wall Street, and, yes, the First Amendment Rights Area are not unique, isolated events, but part of a larger system, a dirty system that is out of place in America.

The government responds to Occupy with the assertion that protesting their system through speech, journalism, assembly and petitions is out of place, and must be corralled accordingly. The First Amendment Rights Area resolves (to use the term loosely) the paradox of upholding a constitutional system that gives the government legitimacy and protects free speech and redress while simultaneously asserting the exercise of that constitutional system is out of place.

The little area on the map is an artifact of at least three warring systems of dirt: Occupy’s assertion that business-as-usual in out of place and taboo; the Government and Occupy belief in the sanctity of the constitution, and any contravention of the constitution is inappropriate and taboo; and the Government-Park-Service-Police assertion that using the First Amendment is disorderly and inappropriate in itself unless disciplined and ordered in a corral.

Detail of the map above.

Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.

4 thoughts on “Speaking out of place: First Amendment Rights Area

  1. Also of note: After OWS arrived, they started power-washing the stairs.

    • The Occupied Wall Street Journal has nicknamed it “The Freedom Cage.”

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