DISCLAIMER: I do not attempt to be polite or partisan in my articles, merely truthful. If you are a partisan and believe that the letter after the name of a politician is more important then their policies, I suggest that you stop reading and leave this site immediately--there is nothing here for you.

Modern American politics are corrupt, hyper-partisan, and gridlocked, yet the mainstream media has failed to cover this as anything but politics as usual. This blog allows me to post my views, analysis and criticisms which are too confrontational for posting in mainstream outlets.

I am your host, Josh Sager--a progressive activist, political writer and occupier--and I welcome you to SarcasticLiberal.blogspot.com

Friday, January 6, 2012

Free Speech and the Occupations

The Attacks on Occupied Speech
Joshua Sager

The first amendment of the US constitution establishes several rights vital to American society as we know it. Being part of what made us a haven for oppressed minorities in other countries; our freedoms of speech and religion are without a doubt two of the central ideals that have shaped the American identity.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
--The First Amendment to the USA Constitution--

The first amendment prevents the government from becoming tyrannical through the suppression of speech and expression. The freedom of speech is simple; the government cannot forbid or punitively consequence the free expressions of personal opinion by individuals living in the USA, whether in public or private.

The Supreme Court has decided that there are several limits to the right to speech, but only in cases of compelling interest by the state. If somebody is presenting an imminent danger to others through their speech (The classic example is yelling fire in a crowded theater.), they can be stopped and punished. Additionally, if somebody is endangering the country itself by revealing state secrets or privileged information, they can be silenced and punished.

The freedom of the press is intended to provide accountability to our elected officials through limiting their control over our press. The press is shielded from government abuses and control so that they can report the facts without worrying about repercussions from those in power. Without a free press, citizens will not be informed as to the wrongdoing of their government and thus cannot even know whether they are being wronged and should seek redress.

The freedom of peaceful assembly allows groups of citizens to gather and protest without fear of being rounded up and jailed (or sometimes worse consequences). The first amendment guarantees the right of the people to assemble on public grounds in order to protest the actions of the government peacefully. The key aspects of this are that the protest must be peaceful and that it cannot be on private property. If the protest is violent, it is not protected because it is a danger to society. As with any private property in the USA, the control over it is of the owner and thus a protest is not protected inside of private spaces due to property rights. A protest such as the Occupation movement is peaceful and located on public land, thus is protected by the freedom of assembly.

The Occupy movement is a series of sit-ins and protests at public spaces across the entire USA that started in reaction to the terrible economic and political situations facing our country. As a peaceful protest of the government and corrupt economic institutions, the Occupations fall directly under the protection of the first amendment. Despite the constitutionally protected nature of the occupations, the government has attempted to shut them down in many ways over the past month. The assaults on the occupiers’ rights have illustrated several ways that the government has attempted to subvert the rights to speech and assembly.

In several places, such as New York and Oakland, the police have taken a direct and violent approach to shutting down the occupations. Riot police and special response units have met the protesters with swinging batons, pepper spray, tear gas, bean bag cannons and even flash bang grenades. The attacks on peaceful protest by the government are justified by citing “public safety” and “hygiene” concerns over the camping by the occupiers in public parks.

I don’t assert that the occupations are entirely hygienic, they are mass campgrounds with limited access to shower facilities after all, but I fail to see how that justifies violence. Unless I completely misread the first amendment, I fail to see the requirement that the protesters to be perfectly groomed for them to assert their right to assemble and protest their government. For those who still assert that hygiene is necessary for the exercise of free speech, I would also point out that our founding fathers had far inferior hygiene practices than any of the modern protesters.

In relation to violence inside of the campsites, due to the protestor’ acceptance of all homeless peoples, there are occasionally violent incidents. Any violence is not tolerated by the protesters and the violent persons are either evicted or pointed out to the police for arrest. As to the police reactions to the isolated incidents of violence inside of the camps: I fail to see how a bunch of officers shooting various “non-lethal” projectiles, caustic chemical and grenades into the campsite make them any safer. In addition to the various assaults on the protest sites, police actions during marches have sometimes become, at best, excessive and at worst, felony assault.

Officials have put the protesters at risk through indirect means in addition to direct ones. There are numerous reports of police directing disturbed and intoxicated individuals to the protests. Rudimentary logic would tell the police that sending disturbed people into a crowd might end violently for someone. If the police were truly motivated by increasing the safety of the public and the protesters, they would not attempt to send disturbed people into a camp of political protesters. These actions are not unconstitutional on their own, as they don’t directly stifle speech or assembly, but they are disgusting and a complete perversion of the ideals of “protecting and serving”.

Occupations not only face violence but also far more subtle forms of suppression: Permits, curfews, property destruction, and causeless jailing. In occupations all around the country cities have enforced time and location limits on the protests. In many cases, officials impose curfews and arrest those who stay in order to protest. Occupy Boston itself was victim to this manner of eviction on October 11th, when police evicted the protesters from a second Greenway parcel.

Once a legal justification (tenuous as it may be) for eviction of the protesters is created by the officials, there are arrests and private property is destroyed. Protesters are most often given minor consequences after being arrested in these protests, but the arrest itself is a violation of rights. In addition to the arrests, there are sometimes police actions which damage the property of the protesters simply for being at the protests. In most occupations that have faced police action, protestor’s property has been destroyed or removed simply to make occupation less comfortable.

A perfect illustration of a government limiting free speech through indirect means was given by Mayor Jean Quan after she sent the police to break up Occupy Oakland:

“Frank Ogawa Plaza will continue to be open as a free speech area from 6 am to 10 pm.”

There are two huge issues inside of this one statement.

First: The idea of a “free speech area” is the antithesis of the ideals named in the first amendment. The constitution names that freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly are nearly absolute, not that protest must be relegated to certain areas of the country.

Second: The idea that people only have the right to speech during 16 out of the 24 hours of the day (only in the previously mentioned spots), is an abrogation of the rights to assemble and speak. If protest is restricted to certain times and places by the arbitrary rules of an executive, then it ceases to have any meaning.

Beginning with an act of civil disobedience, where several dozen protesters dumped tea into the Boston harbor, our country has been host to numerous protests. When protest must be scheduled at the discretion of those in power, what hope does it have of changing the status quo? 

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