Free speech zones (also known as First Amendment Zones, Free speech cages, and Protest zones) are areas set aside in public places for citizens of the United States engaged in political activism to exercise their right of free speech. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The existence of free speech zones is based on court decisions that stipulate the government may regulate the time, place, and manner—but not content—of expression. TPM restrictions, as these are known, are only lawful when:
they treat all speech equally - for example, persons on all sides of an issue must be treated the same;
they are justified by a substantial, bona-fide public interest, such as crowd control;
they do not substantively impede or dilute the speech at hand;
there is no bad faith; there is no overt or ulterior motive by the authorities imposing a TPM restriction to suppress speech in general, or speech that they disagree with, in particular.
All TPM restrictions are subject to judicial review. Unreasonable and unconstitutional TPM restrictions are and have been repeatedly vacated by various courts, and/or subjected to injunction, restraining order, and consent decree. Unconstitutional TPM restrictions allow citizens whose freedom of speech has been violated to personally sue state agents acting under color of law responsible for the violations at hand in their individual capacity, e.g. as private citizens, stripping them of any official capacity defense or defenses of sovereign immunity. TPM restrictions related to core political speech are subject to the highest possible level of Constitutional scrutiny.
Free speech zones have been used at a variety of political gatherings. The stated purpose of free speech zones is to allegedly protect the safety of those attending the political gathering, or allegedly for the safety of the protesters themselves. Critics, however, suggest that such zones are "Orwellian", and that authorities use them in a heavy-handed manner to censor protesters by putting them literally out of sight of the mass media, hence the public, as well as visiting dignitaries. Though authorities generally deny specifically targeting protesters, on a number of occasions, these denials have been contradicted by subsequent court testimony. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a number of lawsuits on the issue.
On September 11, 2005 the American Civil Liberty Union reports:
30,000 National Security Letters Issued Annually Demanding Information about Americans: Patriot Act Removed Need for FBI to Connect Records to Suspected Terrorists
[...] According to the Washington Post, universities and casinos have received these letters and been forced to comply with the demands to turn over private student and customer information. Anyone who receives an NSL is gagged - forever - from telling anyone that the FBI demanded records, even if their identity has already been made public.
In February 2004 a study from FAIR, the national media watchdog group, found that 76 percent of all 319 news sources appearing in stories about Iraq on the nightly network newscasts (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News) in the month of October 2003 were current or former government or military officials.
On February 17, 2006 former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated, that "in this war, some of the most critical battles may not be fought in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in the newsrooms in places like New York and London and Cairo and elsewhere. While the enemy is increasingly skillful at manipulating the media and using the tools of communications to their advantage, it should be noted that we have an advantage as well, and that is, quite simply, that the truth is on our side, and ultimately, in my view, truth wins out. I believe with every bone in my body that free people, exposed to sufficient information, will, over time, find their way to right decisions."
The most prominent examples are those created by the United States Secret Service for President George W. Bush and other members of his administration. While free speech zones existed in limited forms prior to the Presidency of George W. Bush, it has been during Bush's presidency that their scope has been greatly expanded. Free speech zones are and have been used in the past and in the present by institutions of higher education in the United States, which has led to organizations like the ACLU and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to object to these as infringements of freedom of speech, and of academic freedom.