Editorial: The irony of OccupyMaine, Portland and the 1st Amendment

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Irony was probably not what the city of Portland had in mind when it gave OccupyMaine until Thursday, Dec. 15, to either challenge or acquiesce to an order to vacate Lincoln Park.

But talk about ironic: Dec. 15 is the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the First Amendment and Bill of Rights.

OccupyMaine believes its encampment is protected by the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. City Hall, on the other hand, says overnight camping in Lincoln Park is against the law and has nothing to do with the expression of free speech, which is routinely allowed while the park is open.

Whether the occupation, or whatever follows it, remains peaceful will depend on the commitment of both sides to keeping it that way and the direction the free speech debate takes. There is a very real risk that what has so far been a model of civil disobedience and peaceful protest in Portland will turn ugly if the city goes ahead with its threat to give the occupiers 48 hours’ notice to leave the park.

We don’t believe either city officials or the occupiers want the kinds of confrontations that have transpired in New York, Los Angeles and Denver. But at the same time, both sides are preparing.

The City Council essentially invited the protesters to take the city to court, which OccupyMaine now says it intends to do. What concerns us is what the protesters will do if they lose their court case, which we believe is likely.

OccupyMaine has agreed to make some health and safety adjustments in the park, and has published a short list of demands. But more ominously, it issued a plea for witnesses and reinforcements in case the Police Department must forcibly remove the Lincoln Park tent city.

Portland has been exceedingly tolerant of the encampment, and there is no reason to believe the city will do anything to provoke a confrontation. Instead of suggesting it will stage a battle at Lincoln Park, OccupyMaine should put its resources into spreading its message about corporate greed and the nation’s income disparity.

The demands published last week were a small step in that direction.

Pull money from TD Bank? Perhaps, but only if the city can find a local bank or credit union that can offer the same benefits provided by TD Bank, which employs thousands of Mainers and invests millions of dollars throughout the state. TD Bank may be big by OccupyMaine standards, but it wasn’t involved in the worst of the Wall Street abuses and shouldn’t be painted with the same brush just because the occupiers can march there from Lincoln Park.

A 24-hour “free-speech” zone in Monument Square? “General Assembly” at City Hall? Within the limits of city laws and regulations, and as long as you don’t monopolize the space, go for it.

And protest, legally. Gather for 12 hours a day in Lincoln Park to share and promote your ideology; march on City Hall or the Statehouse or the U.S. Capitol;  make your voices heard; register to vote, enlist candidates for elected office and make your votes count in every election, local and national.

But don’t confuse the right to peaceful assembly with the ability to pitch a tent wherever and whenever you see fit.

The city, meanwhile, must resist the urge to act unilaterally and forcefully, and should prepare for the possibility that a judge may rule in OccupyMaine’s favor. It must tread carefully, avoid a violent confrontation and take to heart these anonymous words, which speak both to the standoff with OccupyMaine, and to the significance of Dec. 15:

“One of irony’s greatest accomplishments is that one cannot punish the wrongdoing of another without committing a wrongdoing himself.”

Sidebar Elements

The 1st Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”