Gov. Bill Haslam may not agree with or like the Occupy Wall Street movement which has taken root across the country and around the western world. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that the governor and other public officials respect the fundamental federal and state constitutional rights of citizens to assemble at Tennessee's seat of legislative power and express their grievances. Regrettably, Haslam failed to uphold these critical constitutional rights of assembly and free speech last weekend.
He signed off on an illegal rule to squash the protest movement, and gave state troopers the go-ahead to manhandle, arrest and handcuff 55 protesters at the Capitol's legislative plaza and detain them for hours. And he's still defending that abuse of state police power despite a subsequent Federal Court injunction barring such illegal action against the protesters' First Amendment rights.
Associated Press photographs showed the arrested protesters, who had been quietly sitting together when 75 troopers appeared, spread out face down on the plaza in the cold early morning, their hands strapped behind their backs with plastic zip ties as if they were dangerous criminals who otherwise could not be constrained.
What a travesty. In fact, the protesters had been and were peaceful. Among their ranks were teachers and students, a laid-off librarian, adults of various professions, a Vanderbilt seminarian, a newspaper reporter and a young student photographer who was standing on a public sidewalk. Her camera was damaged and her hands were numb for days from the needless and tight zip ties.
The governor's First Amendment affront is shameful. It was executed on the basis of an illegal, post-facto rule, which was concocted in secrecy on Oct. 27 -- weeks after the protest had begun -- without public notice, legislative review or approval by the state attorney general. Though the legislative plaza has traditionally been open to free and public use without constraint or prior approval, the illegal new rule requires prior approval, user fees, and a million-dollar liability insurance policy. It also limits protests to the hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This whole episode smacks of an abuse of state police power akin to those of a petty Balkan dictator. There was no probable cause to arrest peaceful protesters. And there was no precedent for interrupting protesters' traditional and constitutional rights to use the Capitol plaza to make known their grievances about government tax policies.
In Haslam's case, the irony of his illegal action in the middle of the night to squash the Occupy Wall Street protest is especially notable. The movement, as the ACLU petition for the federal injunction noted, is an effort to call attention to the imbalance in the nation's financial system and to prompt lawmakers' concerns about the consequences of such policies to ordinary working families. Haslam's personal wealth, as a member of a family that owns a national chain of Pilot Oil truck stops worth billions of dollars, surely puts him among the nation's wealthiest families, the beneficiaries of such government-endorsed largesse.
First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and protest government policies merit constant protection and respect. Gov. Haslam owes the protesters an apology, and a commitment to observe their First Amendments. Nothing less than that is acceptable.