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‘Free speech’ rally speakers, little heard, end event quickly

Police were out in force Saturday at the Parkman Bandstand, where free speech advocates held a brief rally, well separated from counterdemonstrators.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

They said they had come to stand up for free speech, but in the end, their invited speakers addressed only a small group of sympathizers, on a bandstand surrounded by barricades, far from the throngs of counterprotesters, who could not hear them at all.

By 12:45 p.m., only 45 minutes into their official program, organizers of the Boston Free Speech rally ended the event and were escorted by police out of the park, to chants of “Go home, Nazis” from the crowd. A Facebook post for the event listed 14 speakers and was scheduled to last for two hours.

The separation from the crowds and the news media was by design. The rally had a buffer of about “35, 40 yards” according to Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, in part for safety, but also to dampen their voices. If some speakers were unable to make it to the bandstand, Evans said, “That’s a good thing because their message isn’t what we want to hear.”

John Medlar, one of the rally’s organizers, complained on his Facebook page that journalists and supporters were blocked from entering the rally.


“This has only proven my point: There is a massive cultural intolerance against dialogue in this country,” he wrote.

Those who study and advocate for the First Amendment were split on the city’s actions.

“Free speech doesn’t guarantee that anybody listens to you,’’ said Rebecca Tushnet, a First Amendment specialist at Harvard Law School. She said the ideas of the rally came across because of the heightened attention to it.

“People are understandably reacting to symbolism,’’ Tushnet said, after the violence during a rally last weekend in Charlottesville, Va. “A peaceful counterprotest really is very much free speech in action.”

The counterprotesters, who vastly outnumbered those who attended the “free speech” rally, reveled in the low turnout and early departure. But Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge-based criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, said: “I am burning over this. If we repress and suppress unpopular speech, all we’ve done is kept ourselves ignorant.”


Silverglate said it was important to know whether the speakers had dangerous or hateful messages.

“I was deprived of that because of an army of hooligans who made it impossible to hear the speakers,’’ he said.

Authorities had worried that the rally, which was held at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common, would attract white supremacists. Two of the event’s scheduled speakers had ties to extremist elements, including one who took part in the Charlottesville rally.

It’s unclear whether those speakers addressed those on the bandstand, which appeared to hold 50 people, at most. The speakers were also separated from others on the Common by dozens of police officers on bicycle and on foot. If they had any amplification on the bandstand, it was not audible to the crowd or to reporters.

“It would have done greater honor to the First Amendment if the rally organizers’ message — no matter how noxious — could in fact be heard. I believe that Bostonians as a whole are strong enough to hear such a message and still soundly reject it, proving that hate has no power here,’’ Boston lawyer Robert Bertsche said.

Shiva Ayyadurai, a Republican who is challenging Elizabeth Warren for her Senate seat and was a speaker at the rally, said that isolating the rally was “despicable.”


“They blocked free speech,” Ayyadurai said, referring to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker.

The counterprotesters often chanted loudly, and sometimes profanely. There were thumping drums and shouts of “shame” and “we can’t hear you.” However, amid the noise were a number of polite, if passionate, encounters between the two sides.

James Leavitt, a 23-year-old from Weymouth, was sporting a Trump football shirt and explaining to a small group that he was at the rally to support free speech. He was driven by recent protests against conservative speakers at the University of California, Berkeley, he said.

“I think everyone should be able to have an opinion, as long as they’re not hurting anyone,’’ Leavitt said. As several counterprotesters challenged Leavitt, Jeremy Herrell, a conservative blogger from Claremont, N.H., applauded the group.

“I wish there was more of this going on,’’ he said of the cordial exchange.

The temperature heated, however, after the rally participants were ushered off the Common to vans parked at the edge of the Common, on Boylston Street. Several hundred counterprotesters blocked the exit for about 45 minutes, shouting, “Make them walk,” until police wearing riot gear and carrying sticks finally pushed the counterprotesters out of the way.

The American Civil Liberties Union had sued the city of Charlottesville on behalf of the march organizers there, arguing for their right to hold their event. But members of the Boston ACLU on Saturday marched with counterprotesters here.

“Given those overwhelming numbers, and in light of last week’s horrible violence in Charlottesville, it was understandable for the police to try to keep some physical space between different groups who came out today,’’ ACLU Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose said in a statement.


“[But] if the Boston Police Department created buffer zones to intentionally limit journalists’ and [others’] access to speakers on the Boston Common, it would raise serious constitutional concerns.”

Aimee Ortiz, Jan Ransom, Dan Adams, and Cristela Guerra of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.
. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.