The Hypocrisy of Occupy Wall Street


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It's too soon to tell whether Occupy Wall Street's drive to appropriate public spaces will entirely obscure its protests of economic injustice, but the dangers of its morphing into an ineffectual Occupy Whatever movement are already evident. Occupation is more exhilarating and instantly gratifying than the hard slog of advancing political and social change, and so far, one of the movement's primary achievements has been a remarkable judicial ruling implying a new First Amendment right of occupation. 

Public protests have long been subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, (as I discussed here). But a Superior Court judge in Boston has effectively enjoined the city from imposing routine time, place, and manner restrictions on Occupy Boston and evicting the 24/7 occupation from a small square in the financial district, pending a December 1 hearing.

What's so remarkable -- and, in my view, so remarkably wrong -- about this order? It suggests that an infinitesimal percentage of the population may appropriate a public park indefinitely, to the exclusion of more than 99 percent of the people the appropriators claim to represent. In Boston, the occupation hasn't raised many practical problems of exclusion because the small square in which it's based (Dewey Square) is relatively dead urban space. But what if occupiers grow in number and try to take over a heavily used park like the Boston Common, now host to a diverse array of political, charitable, and recreational activities? Whose rights to occupy would take precedence?

Facts matter, of course, and it seems unlikely that the courts would allow one group to appropriate the Common indefinitely. But Occupy Boston's legal arguments suggest a right to do so. The occupation is itself an "expressive," First Amendment activity, Occupy Boston asserts. Occupiers are "creating a functional direct democracy to demonstrate the possibility of a more just, democratic, and economically egalitarian society. ... The Occupy protesters' 24 hour per day/7 days per week actual physical occupation of a portion of the city in which they are located is a core component of the message of the Occupy Movement. They express their message through actual, physical occupation of a city through the establishment of a tent city."  

This is an interesting argument, but it begs for a limiting principle. What standard of review should courts employ in deciding if or when the rights of occupiers unduly infringe on the rights of others? Consider just a few questions raised by Occupy Boston's claim:  

What if a group of Tea Partiers seek to establish camp in the same space (Dewey Square) in order to demonstrate a contrary vision of community or communicate a contrary view of economic justice? What if the Tea Partiers also argue that camping in Dewey Square is "a core component of their message" because of its location in the financial district? Private associations have First Amendment rights to formulate and control their own messages. So would Occupy Boston have the right to exclude the Tea Partiers, in order to prevent them from muddying its message, simply because they got there first?  What if either Occupy Boston or the Tea Party or any other group decided to take over a much larger, more popular space, like the Boston Common, insisting that it was, after all, the only place in which their messages could effectively be conveyed? 

What if a group of Christian nationalists set up camp in a public park and excluded all non-Christians from their encampment in order to demonstrate the possibility of a purified Christian America? What if they purposefully chose a park across the street from a mosque or synagogue, claiming that the location was essential to their message? What if a group of White Supremacists set up a tent city in a public space that admitted only white people?

If you believe that rights enjoyed by Occupy Boston should not be extended to the Christian nationalists and White Supremacists, among other private groups that discriminate based on race, religion, or other protected categories, then you're endorsing content-based discrimination against speech -- a fundamental violation of First Amendment freedoms. If the right to disseminate a particular message is contingent on popular or official approval of its content, then it's not a right at all. It's an unreliable, arbitrary privilege. Occupy Wall Street and its satellites are supposed to represent the interests of the unprivileged many; they should perhaps refrain from demanding occupational "rights" that can only be extended to a privileged few.

They criticize the "1 percent" for taking too much wealth, but they claim the right for a small group to inhabit public space indefinitely
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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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