The Shocking Restrictions on Free Speech at the London Olympics

The law, lawyers, and the court.
July 25 2012 6:15 AM

Don’t Even Consider Talking About the Olympics

What’s behind the shocking suppression of free speech at U.S. political conventions and the London Games?

(Continued from Page 1)

These laws were designed to address what is known as “ambush marketing,” wherein a third party tries to associate itself with a sporting event, denying official sponsors some of the value of their own “official” designation. It’s hardly a new problem and it’s a significant issue in the realm of intellectual property law, but London seems to have taken its response to Orwellian heights.

But it’s not just marketing that is targeted. “Advertising” here is defined to include any kind of message placed in any location that is “wholly or partly for the purpose of promotion, advertisement, announcement, or direction.”

Creepily enough, the law is being enforced by (wait for it) the Olympic Deliverance Authority, which has brand enforcers roaming the green hills of Great Britain to halt abuse of the five rings by the unauthorized. Violators can be fined in amounts up to $30,000. So far a London café has been forced to remove five offending bagels from its windows, as has a butcher who had the temerity to do the same with sausage links. Spectators have been warned that to risk wearing a garment adorned with the Pepsi logo may result in being banished from game venues and that nobody but McDonald's can sell French fries at any Olympic concession stand. An old lady got tagged for sewing the five rings onto a mini doll sweater. Don’t photograph your Pepsi bottle.

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But it’s not just the Olympic rings that are being protected; it’s also Olympic words. As Nick Cohen recently observed, the “government has told the courts they may wish to take particular account of anyone using two or more words from what it calls ‘List A.’ ” Those words: Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, and twenty twelve. And woe betide anyone who takes a word from List A and marries it with one or more words from “List B”: Gold, Silver, Bronze, London, medals, sponsors, summer.

Oh, and there’s more. Spectators have been warned they may not “broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings, including on social networking websites and the Internet,” making uploading your video to your Facebook page a suspect activity. Be careful with your links to the official Olympic website as well.

Know that wherever you go and whatever you do, you will enjoy, at the Olympics “the biggest mobilization of military and security forces seen in the UK since the Second World War.” According to a report by Stephen Graham in the Guardian, “More troops—around 13,500—will be deployed than are currently at war in Afghanistan. The growing security force is being estimated at anything between 24,000 and 49,000 in total. Such is the secrecy that no one seems to know for sure.” There will be an aircraft carrier docked on the Thames, surface-to-air missile systems, and a “thousand armed US diplomatic and FBI agents and 55 dog teams will patrol an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11-mile, £80m, 5,000-volt electric fence.” Throw in the new scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, and disease-tracking systems that will long outlast the games, and you have a sense of what’s to come in terms of big public events.

It’s probably just a coincidence that London used the word “clean city” and Tampa used the words “clean zone” to describe what they were after here. (Tampa has since changed the name to "event zone," presumably celebrating the fact that the zone is not proximate to any actual event.) In London, those seeking to exploit the games for any message or purpose are called "parasites."

But these events must be more than just clean staging areas for corporate fabulosity. Protesters, participants, and citizens aren't parasites or background noise. Addressing threats of terror or real violence is one thing. Treating all speech and protest and media as inherently dangerous and violent is something entirely different. Brandishing the wrong sign in the wrong place isn't protest, and brandishing the wrong French fry in the right place isn't dangerous. Corporate cleanliness is just a short hop from corporate godliness, and by then it’s much too late for speech.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.

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