Occupy protesters must think beyond camps

Since starting in New York in September 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to over one hundred US cities and has crept across Europe.

Over the past few weeks, Occupy encampments in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis and Oakland, California have been dismantled by law enforcement.

Government officials are being forced to grapple with the challenge of maintaining public safety without violating participants’ First Amendment right to free speech. At the same time, Occupy protestors are not only learning how to face down the one per cent but are receiving a valuable lesson in understanding their civil liberties.

The First Amendment is paramount

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa estimates that the cost associated with the midnight eviction of Occupy LA protestors and the pursuant cleanup could exceed 1 million USD. Nonetheless, he defended his decision to allow their two-month occupation of  City Hall Park, saying:

 The First Amendment is messy. It’s not always pretty. There’s sometimes a cost to it. What’s the cost if we deny the 1st Amendment to America and Americans. We’re all going to pay for it and in tough, tough economic times and that’s true around the country.

Lawyers for Occupy Boston went so far as to say that the Occupy movement’s First Amendment right to protest should trump concerns about fire safety. Howard Cooper, a lawyer for Occupy Boston stated:

The primary value to be balanced here is free speech. The question is whether you just take the First Amendment considerations that are unique response to a unique set of issues we all face yesterday and throw it out without letting them address any of these issues.

Despite strong arguments for First Amendment rights, long term Occupy encampments have increasingly been criticised as threatening public safety.

In Boston, the fire marshal warned that the Occupy encampment in Dewey Square has become a serious fire hazard. The fire marshal has refused to work with Occupy Boston because the movement lacks any kind of central leadership with whom he can communicate. The issue of use of force during Occupy evictions was brought to a head when controversial footage of police pepper spraying college students at UC Davis was posted online on 19 November. (The police defended their decision, citing fears to their personal safety.) Floyd Abrams, expert on First Amendment issues and Partner at Cahill Gordon and Reindel, LLP, acknowledged that the police are given a good deal of deference in the methodology that they use. He explained the boundaries of police behaviour:

[The police] obviously cannot pepper spray people promiscuously. They cannot beat people. They cannot chain people. There are lots of things they cannot do, but in terms of which way the law tends to lean, it tends to let the police make the decision about when to make people leave and the precise tactics. In Oakland people were throwing things at the police. In that situation, the courts would defer to a very great degree to a decision of the city about what level of force to use to respond. In a situation in which people simply refuse to move and participate in a sort of passive resistance, the police have to take care not to use exaggerated and unnecessary force.

Recent crackdowns on Occupy encampments have seen local governments try to restrict journalist access to the eviction process and have even led to accusations of police brutality against reporters. During the eviction of the Occupy LA movement, Mayor Villaraigosa issued a decree limiting media access to the process, instructing: “During the park closure, a First Amendment area will remain open on the Spring Street City Hall steps.” In New York, Mayor Bloomberg’s office even admitted to arresting at least five reporters who were in possession of valid NYPD press badges. An LA network stopped streaming footage of the City Hall Park eviction, after stating that “they had made an agreement with LAPD not to reveal their tactics and wanted to protect the integrity of the operation.”

When asked about the constitutionality of sequestering journalists into designated areas, Abrams emphasised the importance of maintaining freedom of the press:

[T]here are some circumstances in which a situation so threatens public stability that everyone has to be moved away from the area — a fire in a building, a person with a weapon who is threatening people. But in my view there are no circumstances in which the press may constitutionally be treated worse than the public as a whole…beyond any discriminatory treatment of the press I believe that when activity is going on in public places, such as a park street or the like, that there is a strong first amendment interest in the press being present. Also, I believe that a policy of excluding or barring the press from being present is not only terrible policy but likely unconstitutional.

The First Amendment protects freedom of assembly and petition, as long as the state enforces rules regarding the use of public space evenly and fairly. These principles are upheld by the court decision Clark vs CCNV, which places time, place and manner restrictions on protests. Abrams said he did not believe that there was a strong argument for long-term encampments on public property.

There is always the possibility of reaching some negotiated agreement with cities and other communities. That said, I do not think that there is a strong First Amendment argument in favour of an enforceable right of protestors to sleep in public parks. Particularly on a long-term basis. Protestors have rights to dissent and to march and to demonstrate to assert their dissent. But our courts have recognised again and again that there are some limits based on time place and manner. I do not think they will fare well in the courts in asserting rights to basically build mini-communities on park land.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration in New York cited deaths, sexual assaults, theft and drugs as threats to public safety in the tent cities. Bloomberg emphasised that “the First Amendment protects speech. It doesn’t protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space.”

Looking forward

Canadian journalist Naomi Klein recently spoke to Occupy protestors, stating:

Occupy Wall Street…has chosen a fixed target. And you have put no end date on your presence here. This is wise. Only when you stay put can you grow roots. This is crucial. It is a fact of the information age that too many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off. It’s because they don’t have roots.

The analogy of “growing roots” is surprisingly apt. As election season approaches, the Occupy movement will want to persevere in getting its message across to both politicians and the electorate in order to survive. This may mean moving beyond the model of establishing large scale encampments and onto as form of protest that is more sustainable.

Rachel Greenspan is Index’s new US Editor 

Film bosses consider changes to SOPA piracy laws

The Motion Picture Association announced this week that it would consider changes to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) to address concerns raised by tech companies such as Google and Yahoo. In a phone briefing this week, Michael O’Leary, senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs of the Motion Picture Association of America, anticipated that opponents of SOPA and PIPA would remain unhappy with the bill, but that the ultimate goal was to have it passed in some form. He declined to give details of specific changes.

Proponents of the bill are trying to push it through the House of Representatives by 15 December, but are facing strong opposition. Critics of the bills are likely to see any effort at revision or toning down of language as grossly inadequate. If the bill fails to pass during this session, it is likely that next year’s election will make passing legislation even more difficult. Opponents have also gained Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) endorsement against SOPA. She has now publicly said in a statement:

I am fully supportive of the need to pass legislation in this Congress to combat intellectual piracy, specifically dealing with rogue digital theft sites. It is incumbent on the parties that are concerned by the current proposal to offer changes that would effectively deal with piracy. We must work together for an effective solution.

Cynthia Wong of the Center for Democracy and Technology recently expressed concerns that SOPA and PIPA could harm freedom of expression, privacy, and innovation online.

Another problem not addressed in O’Leary’s interview is the issue of DNS filtering, which has been deemed ineffective and technically problematic by experts. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Labs recently wrote a letter to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), stating that they believe DNS filtering would be ineffective, would negatively impact U.S. cybersecurity efforts and internet use, and would hinder security improvements to DNS. At one point the letter states that “one staff member characterised the proposed DNS filtering mandate as a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach that would only encourage users and offending websites to resort to low cost work-arounds.”

There are also signs of a potential bipartisan alternative to SOPA, proposed by Senators Wyden (D-OR), Cantwell (D-WA), Moran (R-KS), and Warner (D-VA); Reps Chaffetz (R-UT), Campbell (R-CA), Doggett (D-TX), Eshoo (D-CA), Issa (R-CA), and Lofgren (D-CA). The new plan is rumored to take responsibility in this area away from the Attorney General, and place it with the Internet Trade Commission (ITC). Happily, it is rumored that the proposed alternative would not include website blocking by ISPs and DNS providers, nor would search engines or others be required to remove links to such content.

Cory Doctorow on copyright

Science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger Cory Doctorow spoke at the New America Foundation on Tuesday about his thoughts on productivity, creativity and parenting in the 21st century.  The meeting framed copyright policy against broader concerns about its impact on civil liberties and human rights.

Doctorow touched on freedom of expression, and the pitfalls of upholding copyright and intellectual property laws while respecting citizens’ rights. He pointed out that “information doesn’t want to be free, people do”.

There is an inherent tension between upholding copyright law and resisting the need to implement censorship and surveillance mechanisms. Doctorow highlighted the fact that it is hard to restrict “general purpose” technologies, giving the whimsical example of trying to create a car wheel that could be used for all outings, except to escape from bank robberies. When addressing multi-use technologies, policies meant to prevent copyright infringement can be blunt tools of enforcement.

“We don’t know how to create a policy that allows for expeditious take down from YouTube of copyrighted material that doesn’t fight people in the Middle East who are participating in the Arab Spring who want to upload their videos in an expeditious way without having it taken down by false flag operations, for example.”

Recently the effect of copyright laws on free expression has been heavily debated in the US during discussions regarding the Stop Online Piracy Act. Doctorow said:

“One of my great frustrations in fights about things like SOPA…are all the people who should be on the other side of the SOPA in fighting the bill, but instead join with the forces endorsing it like the FLCIO. I have a friend who says ‘Just because you’re on their side doesn’t mean they are on your side.”

Rachel Greenspan is Index on Censorship’s US editor