Don't stop the torch protests

Bring the torch to town, publicize the route — and allow anyone who has a strong opinion to show up and be heard

EDITORIAL We (almost) sympathize with Mayor Gavin Newsom: The Olympic torch is a political nightmare. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pushing in one direction; Senator Dianne Feinstein is pushing in another. The local Chinese community is far from unanimous — many residents are proud of the Beijing Olympics and don't want politics to mar the celebration, while others think the Chinese government's actions in Tibet are inexcusable and need to be publicized. The mayor has tried to split the difference, welcoming the torch but promising (for now) to keep it out of Chinatown — and to limit protest.

In fact, the Mayor's Office has talked of establishing isolated "free-speech zones" — an oxymoron if there ever was one — to keep the more vocal demonstrators away from the feel-good imagery of the torch passing through this city.

That's a bad mistake.

Olympic officials and their allies like to say the games are not about politics, and that's fine, as far as it goes — but it really doesn't go that far. China, which has a long list of political problems, wants to use the games to burnish its international reputation. We're not for boycotting the games (the United States' boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 was foolish, as was the Soviet Union's retaliation in Los Angeles four years later). But it's entirely appropriate for critics of the host nation's government to use the occasion to make some points.

And there's plenty to talk about: China has sealed off Tibet to the news media, preventing the world from learning anything beyond the official line. The oppression and human-rights issues are hard to hide, though, and reminding a world audience of that battle for justice and self-determination is a worthy goal of Olympic protests. So is the situation in Darfur, where New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes that "in exchange for access to Sudanese oil, Beijing is financing, diplomatically protecting and supplying the arms for the first genocide of the 21st century."

We're a little baffled at why Newsom is so worried about the torch passing through Chinatown (where there are at least as many people who would cheer as would protest) and why he's trying to prevent visible demonstrations as the icon is carried along the streets of one of the world's most politically active cities. As Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, told us, "we want to allow dissent and model it for the rest of the world."

The politics are tricky, but the answer ought to be simple: forget the "free-speech zones." Bring the torch to town, publicize the route — and allow anyone who has a strong opinion on any side of the issue to show up and be heard.