The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution very properly guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Like the other liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, we should treasure the freedom to gather, to express our views and to state those views to our government, in hopes of bringing about change.
But the First Amendment does not guarantee a right to assemble in any manner at any time. It says the right of assembly is protected so long as it is exercised "peaceably." Courts have long recognized that reasonable time, place and manner rules can be placed on the freedom to assemble.
Unfortunately, too many of the people participating in the so-called "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations across the United States in recent weeks have ignored ordinary time, place and manner restrictions on their protests, and some have even engaged in violence.
While the objectives of the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators are not very precisely defined, the protesters seemed generally focused on opposing those whom they deem "the rich."
The protesters are certainly entitled to their views, and to express those views clearly. But many of them are going beyond that.
In New York City, protesters made it clear they would fight a request to clear out of a privately owned park that had become filthy and unsanitary after weeks of protesters staying on the property in tents and sleeping bags. Two police officers who were trying to maintain order at protests in New York were injured badly enough to be hospitalized. Some demonstrators in New York blocked streets, threw bottles and overturned trash cans. Nearly 200 protesters in Chicago were arrested after they refused to leave a city park at closing time. There were arrests in New Jersey, Arizona, California and Colorado as well.
Commendably, a small group of Chattanoogans who support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement have refrained from any illegal or violent behavior.
Peaceable assembly is a right well worth defending. But unruly, unlawful gatherings are by no means a liberty guaranteed by our Constitution.