published Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Trampling free speech

County Commission chairman Larry Henry would not tell a reporter for this newspaper Monday why he suddenly dropped a federal lawsuit contesting First Amendment rights for Occupy Chattanooga demonstrators before asking the county sheriff and park workers to move their tents and belongings to the sidewalk. But from all appearances, there's an obvious answer: He and other commissioners just got tired of footing their outside lawyers' legal bills for a question over their constituents' free speech rights, and they just got tired of seeing the demonstrator's tents on the courthouse lawn.

What a choice: Protect the courthouse lawn, or protect the free speech rights of American citizens to peaceably assemble and petition their government for redress of their grievances -- in this case, fairer taxes for the 99 percent of American taxpayers over a virtual corporate ownership of Congress and government.

That shouldn't be a tough decision. So their action speaks volumes about their values. They had rather have a tidy lawn and just be done with putting up with a richly symbolic 24/7 political demonstration. Why wait for a fair ruling over the fundamental question of First Amendment rights, when it might go in favor of the demonstrators' free-speech rights?

The commission's rough solution to put the Occupy crowd on the sidewalk can only go downhill. City Police Chief Bobby Dodd immediately announced that he was ready for the next obstructive police tactic. He said Occupy demonstrators could walk or sit on city sidewalks, but could not camp, sleep, cook or obstruct the sidewalks for pedestrians.

So now, under the combined restrictions of the county and city, the Occupiers can't effectively mount a protracted fulltime demonstration. The City Council declared months ago that prevailing city ordinances banned camping on city property. Ironically, it was City Council members who suggested then that the Occupiers pitch their protest camp-out on the county courthouse lawn, since county government had not previously established an anti-camping rule on county administered public property.

The County Commission finally created such a rule a couple of months ago, but its members correctly declined to attempt to enforce it then against the Occupy protest because it would have been illegal to apply a post-facto law against a political demonstration. That, of course, raises the question: Why did the Commission reverse course this week?

It's preference for an open, tidy lawn over the Occupiers' First Amendment rights is disturbing. It reflects the sort of political arrogance and constitutional disregard that too many politicians come to adopt after they get into office and start pocketing sizable campaign contributions.

County commissioners apparently believe that because politicians in many other cities have moved to restrict the Occupy movement, they can do the same without broad disapproval. In fact, most of these police-state actions are being contested in federal courts around the country.

It may not be clear how all these challenges will turn out, but legal precedents generally require a "compelling" reason to hamper political protest. In a similar case in Fort Meyers, Fla., last November, U.S. District Judge John E. Steele Jr. ruled that Occupiers camp-out demonstration "constituted symbolic expression protected by the First Amendment." Nashville's federal judge issued a similar ruling.

Cynics who say they don't care about the Occupier's free speech rights would do well to recall Martin Niemoeller's famous words about the rise of Nazism. "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist." He didn't speak out when the Nazis then came for the trade unionists, and then for the Jews. "Then they came for me," he wrote, "and there was no one left to speak out for me."

In America, political free speech merits faithful protection. Failure to perform that duty harms us all, and grossly belittles the strength of the Constitution that we otherwise so proudly proclaim.

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I feel so safe, that the Sheriff has dealt with all other crime SO WELL that he can have the time to bother with this.

Surely there's no other problems to worry about.

March 22, 2012 at 1:36 a.m.
fairmon said...

The right to assemble and protest doesn't appear to include the right to squat and occupy public or private property which obligates others to financially support the protest by maintaining the area, provide safety and health protection etc. etc.. How is a bunch of homeless camping out at night any more effective than signs and protest during the day when others are there to see them. Q: Who in the heck are these people asking to do what, what do they expect to see as a result of their behavior. It sounds like they want someone to confiscate from those that are working, possibly successful, and give it to them rather than seek to be successful themselves. Who is supporting them while they participate in this protest sabbatical.

March 22, 2012 at 2:19 a.m.
conservative said...

The writer......"petition their government for redress of their grievances -- in this case, fairer taxes for the 99 percent of American taxpayers over a virtual corporate ownership of Congress and government."

What a lie!!! What a shameless lie!!! What a shameless transparent lie!!!

March 22, 2012 at 6:53 a.m.
Dumbledore403 said...

Sad feature Conservative is that it is not a lie....but you will not realize it until it is far far too late. And Harp most of the Occupy has jobs or is retired..but you would not know since you will not come to talk.

March 22, 2012 at 7:35 a.m.

harp, actually it must, elsewise you are able to dismiss and ignore the protests. If you can escape the consequences of something, you will not pay attention to it.

They're also not homeless, they are choosing to sacrifice, and if you want your questions answered, ask them. Because you know what? You obviously haven't, or you wouldn't be making up your complaints about it.

March 22, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.
joneses said...

How ridiculous it is to hear a liberal piss and moan about free speech as whenever someone disagrees with them they try to shut them up. Pathetic hypocrites.

March 22, 2012 at 1:29 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Joneses, you are smart.

March 22, 2012 at 7:35 p.m.

Disagree? No.

Lie and deceive? Engage in a campaign built on hate and falsehood?

Yes, then I will tell you to shut up. Because you've cheapened speech by engaging in that kind of conduct.

But stick to honest statements instead, and you're golden.

March 22, 2012 at 7:50 p.m.
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