Trampling free speech

Trampling free speech

March 22nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

County Commission chairman Larry Henry would not tell a reporter for this newspaper Monday why he suddenly dropped a federal lawsuit contesting First Amendment rights for Occupy Chattanooga demonstrators before asking the county sheriff and park workers to move their tents and belongings to the sidewalk. But from all appearances, there's an obvious answer: He and other commissioners just got tired of footing their outside lawyers' legal bills for a question over their constituents' free speech rights, and they just got tired of seeing the demonstrator's tents on the courthouse lawn.

What a choice: Protect the courthouse lawn, or protect the free speech rights of American citizens to peaceably assemble and petition their government for redress of their grievances -- in this case, fairer taxes for the 99 percent of American taxpayers over a virtual corporate ownership of Congress and government.

That shouldn't be a tough decision. So their action speaks volumes about their values. They had rather have a tidy lawn and just be done with putting up with a richly symbolic 24/7 political demonstration. Why wait for a fair ruling over the fundamental question of First Amendment rights, when it might go in favor of the demonstrators' free-speech rights?

The commission's rough solution to put the Occupy crowd on the sidewalk can only go downhill. City Police Chief Bobby Dodd immediately announced that he was ready for the next obstructive police tactic. He said Occupy demonstrators could walk or sit on city sidewalks, but could not camp, sleep, cook or obstruct the sidewalks for pedestrians.

So now, under the combined restrictions of the county and city, the Occupiers can't effectively mount a protracted fulltime demonstration. The City Council declared months ago that prevailing city ordinances banned camping on city property. Ironically, it was City Council members who suggested then that the Occupiers pitch their protest camp-out on the county courthouse lawn, since county government had not previously established an anti-camping rule on county administered public property.

The County Commission finally created such a rule a couple of months ago, but its members correctly declined to attempt to enforce it then against the Occupy protest because it would have been illegal to apply a post-facto law against a political demonstration. That, of course, raises the question: Why did the Commission reverse course this week?

It's preference for an open, tidy lawn over the Occupiers' First Amendment rights is disturbing. It reflects the sort of political arrogance and constitutional disregard that too many politicians come to adopt after they get into office and start pocketing sizable campaign contributions.

County commissioners apparently believe that because politicians in many other cities have moved to restrict the Occupy movement, they can do the same without broad disapproval. In fact, most of these police-state actions are being contested in federal courts around the country.

It may not be clear how all these challenges will turn out, but legal precedents generally require a "compelling" reason to hamper political protest. In a similar case in Fort Meyers, Fla., last November, U.S. District Judge John E. Steele Jr. ruled that Occupiers camp-out demonstration "constituted symbolic expression protected by the First Amendment." Nashville's federal judge issued a similar ruling.

Cynics who say they don't care about the Occupier's free speech rights would do well to recall Martin Niemoeller's famous words about the rise of Nazism. "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist." He didn't speak out when the Nazis then came for the trade unionists, and then for the Jews. "Then they came for me," he wrote, "and there was no one left to speak out for me."

In America, political free speech merits faithful protection. Failure to perform that duty harms us all, and grossly belittles the strength of the Constitution that we otherwise so proudly proclaim.