As I reported Jan. 18, California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee has asked for answers to the question of why D.C. Occupiers were allowed to camp indefinitely in a public park. Given that D.C. has a no-camping-in-public-places law in place, the question might better be phrased: Why were D.C. Occupiers allowed to break the law?
Yesterday, Issa’s Committee received testimony from National Park Service officials, who said they plan to enforce the no-camping law soon — but that they won’t evict the Occupiers except in emergency circumstances. I’m at a loss as to how they plan to enforce the law without enforcing the law, but let’s set that aside for a moment to focus on something even more interesting. The National Park Service officials — and, not surprisingly, the Occupiers themselves — claim the protesters have a First Amendment right to squat in a public place. The NPS officials cited decades of case law that has allowed protesters to host 24-hour vigils on parkland.
The National Park people do know the Occupation has dragged on for months now, don’t they? At any rate, case law should take a backseat to Supreme Court precedent anyway. Heritage Foundation investigative reporter Lachlan Markay explains why camping out night and day at taxpayers’ expense and at the risk of public safety and public health doesn’t qualify as protected speech:
The Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in the 1984 case Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence. The NPS had granted CCNV a permit to conduct demonstrations on the National Mall designed to bring attention to the plight of the homeless. But when CCNV set up a tent city – and looked to camp out in it – to drive its point home, the NPS denied its request for a permit that would allow them to sleep there.
CCNV sued, arguing that the act of sleeping in the tent city was integral to its efforts to demonstrate the suffering of homeless people – the entire purpose of the protest. The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled 7-2 that NPS’s enforcement of the anti-camping statute did not violate CCNV’s First Amendment rights.
As summarized in the syllabus for the decision:
“Assuming that overnight sleeping in connection with the demonstration is expressive conduct protected to some extent by the First Amendment, the regulation forbidding sleeping meets the requirements for a reasonable time, place, or manner restriction of expression, whether oral, written, or symbolized by conduct. The regulation is neutral with regard to the message presented, and leaves open ample alternative methods of communicating the intended message concerning the plight of the homeless. Moreover, the regulation narrowly focuses on the Government’s substantial interest in maintaining the parks in the heart of the Capital in an attractive and intact condition, readily available to the millions of people who wish to see and enjoy them by their presence. To permit camping would be totally inimical to these purposes. The validity of the regulation need not be judged solely by reference to the demonstration at hand, and none of its provisions are unrelated to the ends that it was designed to serve.”
Got it, Occupiers? You have a right to protest, but that right is subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. What — did you think your acts of violence were protected speech, too?