Are Tent Cities Free Speech?
Last week, the New York City Police Department’s First Precinct issued the latest crime statistics. Typical offenses in the financial district and Tribeca usually are limited to minor matters such as hawking fake Rolexes and operating unlicensed food carts. This time there was a big increase in violent crimes. “Almost all of these crimes were in and around Zuccotti Park,” commanding officer Edward Winski reported, adding wryly: “Many of these were assaults against police officers.”
From Oakland, Calif., to Portland, Ore., to New York, the Occupy Wall Street movement has worn out the patience of even the most liberal cities. The protesters were shocked when politicians stopped excusing their unlawful behavior by referring to their First Amendment rights and instead forcibly removed their tent cities as threats to health and safety.
The protesters never-ending endgame is a reminder that under the First Amendment, speech may be subject to time, place and manner restrictions that do not include the concept of “occupation.”
The global movement began in New York’s Zuccotti Park, which Mayor Mike Bloomberg finally cleared out last week after nearly two months of a tent city even the police feared to enter. By the end, it featured rapes, drug use and public health dangers. It took 150 Sanitation Department workers hours to clear the mess, finding everything from used hypodermic needles to buckets of human waste. “These were some of the worst smells I’ve ever experienced,” a veteran garbageman told the New York Post.
Local residents and businessmen had grown weary of the health and safety violations, drum circles late into the night, and trashing of shops and restaurants. A group called Downtown Community Coalition was formed by unlikely community organizers, including local parents, health professionals, small-business owners and this columnist.
One lesson of Occupy Wall Street is that if local authorities permit campouts, people will camp out. This permissive approach created a false impression of the strength of the movement. The crowds dispersed once the authorities applied typical time, place and manner rules.