Hamilton County commissioners' displeasure with the Occupy Chattanooga protesters' around-the-clock camp-out on the lawn of the County Courthouse has been apparent for some time. Though their actions have been more measured, and more careful to avoid the use of force seen elsewhere against the Occupy movement, they now seem determined to end the camp-out.
They recently circumvented the Sunshine Law by taking an apparently illegal private meeting with County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to discuss their legal options. There was no legitimate reason to invoke the law's confidentiality clause for a private meeting with the attorney for commissioners to discuss what amounts to a public policy issue -- the correctness and method of their goal to eject the protesters' from their campsite, and thus restrict the form of their protest.
Then they drew up a list of rules that they now claim have been somehow honored and observed through "tradition" for decades, and that they say the protesters are now violating. And now they've gone to federal court to seek a judge's declaration that their planned ejection of the Occupy protesters under those newly contrived rules is legal under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Their method for all this, of course, has the texture of a shameless sham prompted by their intolerance of an exceedingly peaceful, orderly and worthy protest in behalf of economic justice for the broad class of working Americans. There's ample reason to doubt that a federal judge would sanction their intention to create and use post-facto rules to eject the Occupy protesters.
The protesters' mission may be fruitlessly idealistic and their numbers relatively small, but their cause is as valid a political protest in the interest of 99 percent of Americans as any we have seen in many years.
The Occupy protesters' First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of their political grievances has been widely acknowledged as a protected First Amendment privilege. Gov. Haslam discovered that when he approved the product of a late night meeting to create a set of rules governing 24/7 use of the Legislative Plaza in Nashville that could used to end an Occupy protest that had been going for days.
Haslam ordered in a platoon of state troopers who roughly treated, arrested and jailed the protesters, who represented a range of ages and profession. Troopers pushed the orderly, non-violent protesters to the ground in the middle of a cold night and tightly bound their hands behind their backs with cutting plastic ties. Several journalists were arrested and given the same rough treatment, as well. One photographer's valuable equipment was tossed away, along with the protesters' personal possessions, sleeping bags and clothes.
Lawyers representing the group went to federal court and quickly won an injunction against the state's interruption and use of force under newly contrived rules against the Occupy protest. The circumstances of the protest here may vary somewhat. But the court house has indeed been the scene of large protests over the years. Overflowing crowds of teachers and citizens have organized and gathered at the courthouse from time to time to express their political views and advocate for or against tax measures.
The history of political protests may not previously have used a camp-out as part of the protest, but we've never heard of an informal, traditional rule that such a protest, with tents and sleeping bags and coolers, was or had ever been prohibited. As a matter of First Amendment principle, the county's new rules should have to wait until the Occupy protest voluntarily dissolves before they may be used.