Debate Forum Topic, 11/22/11

By Jeff Danziger By Jeff Danziger

Occupy Wall Street and the First Amendment

By Jeff Danziger

By Jeff Danziger

On November 15, in a predawn operation, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the clearing of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Police in riot gear moved into the park shortly after officers handed out notices to protesters warning them the park was about to be cleared. By 4 a.m. the city had completed the removal of the hundreds of tents and tarps that had become associated with the OWS encampment. Police said they had arrested about 70 protesters, including some who chained themselves together in an effort to prevent being dislodged from the park.

The mayor stated that that concerns about safety, fires, sanitation and other hazards left him no alternative other than to clear the park. The mayor also indicated that the OWS protestors could return to the park once the city cleared and sanitized it. Although protesters will be allowed to return, they may no longer set up the encampment of tents, sleeping bags and tarps. The park will be closed every night at 11 p.m. The mayor also indicated that while the majority of protesters have been peaceful and responsible, a small minority of OWS protesters had not been. In making the statement, the mayor stated that while the protesters had First Amendment rights to protest, free speech did not extend to the right to live in tents and to occupy a private park.

The action by the City of New York followed similar efforts in other cities, such as Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif., where the Occupy protests were also shut down. While the movement has continued to grow and with new protests springing up in cities all over the country, recent polling indicates that some events associated with the OWS locations, including sexual assaults, theft, drug use and outbreaks of disease, have eroded some of their support among the general population.

Here in Dayton, Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton has been the site of the local OWS encampment (known as Occupy Dayton) for the past 40 days. Last week, the Downtown Dayton Partnership (DDP) asked Occupy Dayton to temporarily vacate their encampment for a three-day period as the DDP conducts the 39th annual holiday tree lighting ceremony, Grande Illumination. Initially, Occupy Dayton made a counter proposal that it would vacate if Montgomery County and the City of Dayton would place a one-year moratorium on all foreclosures. However, the Occupy Dayton General Assembly, which met over the weekend, modified their demands and agreed to vacate the square for the Grande Illumination celebration. They have been assured that they can return to the Courthouse Square at the conclusion of the celebration.

Critics of the OWS movement state that freedom of speech does not guarantee the right for the various OWS organizations in the cities across the country to erect tent cities and to have 24-hour access to the public parks and squares. Those supporting OWS movements across the country state that these locations belong to the people and that they have every right to exercise their First Amendment rights at these public locations without conditions.

Forum Question of the Week:
Does the First Amendment give Occupy protestors the right to remain in their camps? Or, in the name of public safety, does local government have a right to remove them?

Again, based on the First Amendment, do the Occupy Dayton protestors have the right to negotiate the terms of them vacating Courthouse Square?

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