When new rules don't apply

When new rules don't apply

January 7th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Occupy Chattanooga protesters have camped without incident on the grounds of the County Courthouse downtown for nearly two months. They were able to do so because county government officials had never established rules requiring a permit for such an action. With that obviously in mind, county commissioners on Wednesday formally adopted rules to require a permit for civic use. Whether that suggests commissioners are preparing to eject the protesters is unclear. But if that's their intent, they should restrain themselves.

The rules are restrictive. They generally bar the use of tables, chairs, grills, tents, open fires, overnight camping and other fixtures of the Occupy protest. And Commission Chairman Jim Henry said the county will take the "necessary steps to enforce them."

We could see this coming, of course. Public officials, here and elsewhere, generally behave as if it's their prerogative to fix the limits of citizens' First Amendment rights, especially if citizen demonstrations last long or intrude on the public spaces that naturally lend themselves to public protest for redress of public grievances.

There's a clear problem with trying to impose post-facto laws and rules on public protests, however. As Gov. Haslam learned from a federal judge recently, the rules he and underling lawmakers secretly wrote one night to justify ousting Occupy Nashville protesters from the Capitol's legislative plaza turned out to be illegal. They not only broke a long tradition of unrestricted public protests on the plaza; they also were written after the Occupy protest had begun.

They should have known, or their lawyers should have told them, that such laws cannot be applied retroactively. That makes us wonder about County Attorney Rheubin Taylor's statement that the new regulations merely "follow the procedure of what we've been doing informally in this county for at least the last 34 years."

We hope he's not suggesting the rules could be retroactively applied to the Occupy protest. Indeed, there's already one strike against them: They were agreed upon in a recent meeting that violated the Open Meetings Act.

It seems certain that the Occupy movement eventually will dissolve on its own. In the interim, the protesters should be left alone. They have a legitimate disagreement with public fiscal and tax policies, from the federal to the state level, that favor this nation's ultra-rich to the severe disadvantage of the "other 99 percent" of American taxpayers. If they are willing to continue their protest until the next presidential election, more power to them.