A quick look at pictures in the Times Free Press of the lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse shows why county commissioners are concerned about the so-called "Occupy Chattanooga" protesters who have camped at the site for weeks on end.
Tents and chairs are scattered about. A pile of wood sits under a tarp, and an open fire burns nearby. Once-grassy areas have been reduced to mud. In short, the normally picturesque lawn is a mess.
"You're probably talking about in the thousands-of-dollars range to redo it all and get it back like it used to be," Commissioner Chester Bankston told the Free Press editorial page.
For ill-defined reasons -- such as opposition to "greed" -- Occupy protesters have congregated around the country the past few months. In some cases, sites of their demonstrations have become unsanitary, and some protesters have been violent.
We fortunately have not seen violence in the Chattanooga protest, nor dangerously unsanitary conditions. And agree or disagree with the protesters' views, we all should uphold the constitutional "right of the people peaceably to assemble ... ."
But the freedom of assembly has never been absolute. Time, place and manner restrictions have long been imposed to maintain public order and safety and to protect property.
That is the goal of the commissioners in formalizing restrictions on things such as camping or having open fires outside the courthouse. We do not believe that they want to silence the message of the protesters -- whatever that message is.
The county is now seeking a U.S. District Court ruling that its restrictions are constitutional.
We don't know how that will play out. But we do know that it is reasonable to protect taxpayer-supported county property and public safety.
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