Occupy and the Constitution: Are rights being violated?
Nov. 21, 2011
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
As the Occupy movement presses toward its third month, the debate around it has also shifted.
While observers once asked what the demonstrators were trying to accomplish, they now wonder (along with law enforcement officers and municipal officials across the country) whether the Occupy groups are acting within their constitutional rights.
As images of police officers pepper-spraying protesters at close range circulated on the Internet last week, another question emerged: Are the Occupiers’ rights being violated?
Freedom of Assembly
The First Amendment guarantees all Americans “the right to peaceably assemble.” But the mayors of cities occupied by Occupy faced issues that disrupted the peace as the protest pressed on. Reports of violence inside the camps grew in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and other concerns have emerged among all the camps, including sanitation and health concerns, litter, and uncertainty of how long the protest would last. When New York City evicted its Occupy camp from Zuccotti Park, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the following statement:
“No right is absolute and with every right comes responsibilities. The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out — but it does not give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over to the exclusion of others — nor does it permit anyone in our society to live outside the law. There is no ambiguity in the law here — the First Amendment protects speech — it does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space.”
Freedom of the Press
The eviction of the New York City camp happened about 1 a.m. Nov. 15. The city initially came under fire for acting “under cover of night” and later for restricting press access to the eviction – a potentially unconstitutional action since First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” According to a New York Times report, journalists were blocked from observing the eviction and interviewing the protesters or temporarily detained; some were restricted from entering the area surrounding Zuccotti; and a reporter from WCBS-TV said that police ordered her helicopter crew to evacuate the airspace above Zuccotti. The Times quoted one blogger who said, “The NYPD didn’t want you to see Occupy Wall Street get evicted.” The NYPD argued that the media were kept at bay “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.”
Role of the Police
As other cities began evicting the Occupy camps, images of riot police in action have begun to circulate – along with their means of crowd control, pepper spray. An 84-year-old woman in Seattle’s Westlake Park was pepper-sprayed during a protest; at the University of California, Davis, a video showed protesters sitting passively on the ground, arms interlocked, as a police officer walked up and down the line using orange pepper spray on each person. This has left many pondering whether police were using proper procedure to disperse the crowd or using excessive force. A law enforcement official who watched the clip noted some resistance by two protesters and called the use of force “fairly standard police procedure.”
What do you think?
Are constitutional rights being violated as the Occupy movement presses on? Are the protesters abusing their freedom to assemble? Have reporters been stripped of their right to freedom of the press? Are police using excessive or reasonable force on the demonstrators? Join the discussion!
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