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Burriss on Media: Occupy

MURFREESBORO, Tenn.  (WMOT)  --  It’s not often Murfreesboro and Nashville get to be in the middle of a national controversy, but that’s exactly what’s happening with the “occupy” movement. Both cities are facing a conflict between the protesters’ First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, versus the two cities’ very real concerns about safety, security and sanitation.

Under current law, everyone has the right to demonstrate, picket, march and protest. At the same time, communities can impose what are called “reasonable time, place and manner” restraints. Plus, any restrictions that are imposed have to be the minimal necessary in order to both allow free speech and protect the public from unreasonable inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the members of the occupy movement have hurt their cause by their own activities that are unrelated to free speech. Vandalism, public nudity, urinating on passers-by, and leaving trash and garbage strewn over the protest sites all play into the hands of officials who want to get rid of the protesters.

Communities have a valid claim that these kinds of activities cause a public nuisance, lead to disease and crime, and cause an unnecessary burden on public welfare. And these are the very things that will trump a free speech claim, particularly since these are all under the control of those exercising their free speech rights.

Unless there is a significant potential for harm, organizers are generally allowed to control the activities of their members. In fact, the only way the government can control speech, including so-called “speech plus” is if there is a significant danger to the public. And the “occupy” leaders have apparently not exercised these appropriate control.

Free speech is under attack from many fronts, and those who want to use the First Amendment to promote their own activities need to be at the forefront of making sure they do all they can to protect those rights.

I’m Larry Burriss.