On October 1, 2008, the Ithaca, NY, Common Council declared Ithaca a "Community of Sanctuary" for protestors against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but denied sanctuary status to supporters of the wars. Proponents of the sanctuary resolution used a false narrative of "suppressed" anti-war protestors to justify having government protect only locally popular speech content. Similar tactics can be expected nationally, as Democrats use government power to protect only liberal speech under the guise of promoting "fairness." Ithaca is the home of Cornell University (where I teach) and Ithaca College. With a permanent population that barely exceeds the student population, Ithaca is a college town. Ithaca is "progressive" and then some. Ithaca leads the way in everything from registering domestic partners, to banning smoking outdoors, to "fighting global warming." The night of Barack Obama's election "conga drums rattled as over 100 people of all ages breakdanced and sang, yelled and cheered in front of a giant screen at a party" in downtown Ithaca. The Collegetown area adjacent to the Cornell campus erupted in celebration. According to one student quoted in the Cornell Sun newspaper, "It's crazy, oh my God.... Everyone is running up and down Dryden Road, yelling ‘Barack Obama' and setting off fireworks."
To live in Ithaca is to live in a city alive with anti-Bush, anti-war protest. I often joke that the directions to my house in Ithaca read as follows: Take a right at the fifth Obama sign, a left at the third "Impeach Bush" placard, bear right at the "Support Our Troops, End the War" poster, and we are the house just after the "There's a Village in Texas Missing its Idiot" banner.
Ithacans started protesting the Iraq war even before the war began. In the fall of 2002, several hundred residents attended a meeting to decide how they would protest if the U.S. bombed Iraq. "They immediately organized a die-in on The Commons," recalls one Ithacan. Days before the war started, four protesters, dubbed the St. Patrick's Four, "spilled their own blood around the entrance and on the flag at the Army and Marine Corps Recruiting Center." The protesters later were acquitted of all serious charges. "As the war has dragged on, the number of people active in any meaningful sense ... dropped significantly," one of the St Patrick's Four was quoted as saying. A campaign to impeach President Bush was one of the tools used to reinvigorate the sagging protest movement, and Ithaca was at the center of the impeachment campaign. In April 2007, rallies were held in Ithaca calling for President Bush's impeachment. In June 2007, the Ithaca Common Council approved a resolution calling for impeachment. Ithaca Mayor Carol Peterson spoke in favor of the impeachment resolution. According to the minutes, Peterson, "explained her experience during the 1960's and the Viet Nam War. She lived in Chicago at the time when the Chicago 7 protested and she questioned what lessons have been learned through our past histories and wars if we don't make a statement." In March 2008, protesters took to the streets for a "Giant Puppet Pageant for Peace." The announced purpose of the giant puppet protest was to "Hold our current administration accountable," "End the occupation of Iraq & Afghanistan," and "Stop White Supremacy & NeoColonialism." As far as I can ascertain, no one molested these protestors as they carried their large signs calling on passing motorists to "Honk to Impeach" and to "Impeach for the Children's Future." Ithacans did not need to worry that their political representatives were not on board the anti-war, anti-Bush agenda. In addition to Ithaca Common Council and mayoral support, in July 2008 U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey became the seventh Congressman to sign on to and co-sponsor Dennis Kucinich's impeachment bill. Against the backdrop of widespread local government and popular support for protests against the Bush administration and the Iraq war, Ithaca was the last place in the world where such protesters needed sanctuary. In fact, the only people who needed protection in Ithaca were those who supported the Bush administration. When former Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke at Cornell, "50 people suddenly rose from their seats with their backs towards him and black hoods over their heads." The protesters stood this way for most of the speech, "until an abrupt whistle from an audience member, at the sound of which they filed out of the auditorium in silence." To justify agitation, sanctuary city proponents created the fiction that anti-war protesters who were veterans were losing "benefits" because of their protests. There is scant evidence that any veteran actually lost benefits because of such protests, and even if there were, there is nothing the Ithaca Common Council could do about it. Rather, the issue was the wearing of military uniforms during such protests, possibly in violation of the policy against the military taking a political role. Nonetheless, the sanctuary city proponents used this false narrative of "suppressed" protestors to support its petition drive. The resolution sought to protect the right of residents "to support lawfully and proactively military personnel and veterans who are organizing to stop the wars in and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and all future violations of the United Nations Nuremberg Charters." The resolution further provided that "all other City Officials and all City Employees, as is customary, shall, to the extent permitted by law, respect and not interfere with the lawful activities of military personnel, veterans, and all others who are opposed to the immoral wars in and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and all other violations of the United Nations and Nuremberg Charters."
This high-minded verbiage notwithstanding, there were no reported instances of any city employee interfering in anti-war protests. The sanctuary city proponents created a fictitious victim (the non-existent oppressed anti-war protestors) to drive a political agenda.
Recognizing the danger of government protecting only a single political viewpoint, Ithaca Alderman Eric Rosario proposed an amendment to protect all protesters, including those supporting the wars. Rosario openly acknowledged that his amendment would make him "unpopular" and "ridiculed":
RESOLVED, That this Resolution be a reaffirmation of our commitment to the First Amendment, which ensures the rights of the people to freedom of expression and to peaceably assemble; that we are especially cognizant of the importance of protecting this right for the minority opinion, which may or may not be in agreement with sentiments expressed in this Resolution.
A Peace-Now-Ithaca representative argued at the public hearing that the amendment to protect minority opinion "does not take into account the broader social and political reality.... It just waters down the spirit of the resolution because the spirit of it is to actually give an extra boost, an extra protection to people whose rights are being suppressed in practice...." This argument, of course, was completely fallacious. No one protesting against the war was being "suppressed" in Ithaca.
As to the concern that minority opinions needed protection, the Peace-Now-Ithaca representative was dismissive. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and so people can go out on the street and say what they think and if they're in the minority they might be mocked, but it's not in the purview of the city council to be concerned about who's being mocked or isn't being mocked...."
The Common Council rejected, in an 8-2 vote, Alderman Rosario's proposed amendment in favor of language dropping any reference to protecting minority opinions. So as it stands now in Ithaca, people wishing to protest against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are protected against government or other interference, while those who support these policies have no such protection.
We can expect to see more of the Ithaca model of protecting only liberal speech. The Obama campaign's use of prosecutors to intimidate political opponents, e-mail action lists to shut down telephone lines at radio stations, and the use of the "race card in reverse" to silence opponents, does not bode well. Senator Chuck Schumer already has compared conservative talk radio to pornography. Unlike the largely futile, self-aggrandizing actions of the Ithaca Common Council, however, the federal government has the power to do substantial damage to conservative free speech. William A. Jacobson is Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, NY, and author of the Legal Insurrection Blog. The views expressed here are his own, and not on behalf of the university.