Are Occupy Wall Street’s tents free speech? NYC Mayor Bloomberg says no.

  • Published on October 18th, 2011

Police destory Occupy Wall Street tents (from Harvard Crimson)What is free speech? According to the Supreme Court, money that corporations spend to influence elections is free speech, and cannot be limited. But it seems a lot of our officials think it’s perfectly OK to place limits on free speech when it comes to the 99 percent.

Which is particularly ironic considering that opposition to unhealthy, democracy-stifling corporate influence on elections and government is at the very heart of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

In New York today, Mayor Bloomberg told the assembled media that because tents used by Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t be considered as part of their demonstration, those tents are not protected by the constitutional guarantee of free speech and peaceful assembly.

This has been an issue across the country – Boston, Seattle, Denver, San Diego. Local officials have used local park regulations as the deciding factor in placing limits on the right of citizens to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

So let’s get this straight…

  • Society may have a compelling interest to regulate the massively corrupting influence of unlimited corporate campaign cash, but that’s just too bad, because it’s free speech that cannot be limited. (For a background video on this Supreme Court decision, see:  The Story of Citizens United“)
  • But if a city’s parks administration finds it inconvenient and messy for people to be in a public park after 10 pm – with tents! – it’s okay to put limits on the free speech rights of THOSE people.

“The Constitution doesn’t protect tents,” Bloomberg said. “It protects speech and assembly.”

Note to Bloomberg: If spending $1,00,000 on TV ads that support Republicans is “speech”, then having a tent at your month-long demonstration (so you don’t freeze to death) is speech, too. In case you don’t get it:

  • If you have a million dollars, you can spend it on fancy production values and air a commercial on prime time that goes out to millions of people. That’s “free speech”.
  • If you don’t have a million dollars, and want to get your message out to millions of people, sometimes you have to do something more creative – like occupy a park. In order to do that, some practical things are necessary, like tents. Without tents, it is not possible to occupy a park. If the occupation is a critical part of the message, then banning tents has the chilling effect of banning free speech.
Here’s Justice Stevens, writing for the minority in their dissent to the conservatives’ ruling in Citizens United:

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

It’s a dearth of public participation that has been a problem, which is alsoat the heart of Occupy Wall Street. We don’t need rules that inhibit public participation – we need rules that encourage it. And last time I checked, city ordinances don’t trump the Constitution.

UPDATE: From the comments, a suggestion by Alexis: “I wonder if they painted the tents with messages, if the government could still use the ‘tents aren’t part of free speech’ argument.” Shall we try that out in the field and see if it works?

Background on Citizens United and corporate campaign cash:

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About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.
  • Find out why the Mayor is wrong and that the Constitution does protect tents:

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  • A simple yet just demand.

    If every man woman and child was guaranteed:
    a minimum sustenance amount of food, everyday of their life,
    a minimum amount of healthcare including dental,
    and minimum structurally safe housing.

    Every country in the world has this same demand for it’s peoples. But America is one of the few countries that can just provide it to their citizens.
    Stephen Weber

    Free education for those that can stand at the top levels of their school class would be a smart addition..

  • We live in a country no longer represented by the people but by the interests of major corporations and the money they use through lobbying to pay off our elected officials. These politicians no longer voice the opinion of the voters who put them in office but instead speak for the special interests which pay them more and more money to turn a blind eye to the destruction of our environment and the extinction of the middle class. How long will the occupations have to last before a SINGLE government official asks what WE the PEOPLE want changed? Visit my artist’s blog at to see my art for the movement and also see videos of the protests and police brutality as well as get other sources for coverage of the movement.

  • Alexis

    I wonder if they painted the tents with messages if the government could still use the “tents aren’t part of free speech” argument.

  • As far as I know nothing has been said about the bonuses that CEOs are paying themselves while share value plumits and also these bonuses come out of the tax payer funded bailout money
    John Anderson