Money is speech, tents are not
Today’s massive police actions to shut down (at least temporarily) the Occupy Wall Street protest in Liberty Plaza, sanctioned by the courts, stand in stark contrast to the official government actions to facilitate the speech of the 1%.
The 1 percent are told by the Supreme Court that their money is speech and shan’t be limited except by the depths of their bank accounts. The Koch Brothers are allowed to disrupt the sanctity of my living room with their political speech, interrupting the programs I tuned into (be it the evening news, or Monday Night Football) with their 30 second commercials. This is annoying. It is not welcome. It is also a form of speech available only to those with lots of money — hence it is not free but rather quite expensive.
The 99 percent are told by the Courts today that while the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law” interfering with the right to peacefully assemble, what this really means is that the government can regulate the time, place, and manner of the speech of the 99 percent.
That means, even if it doesn’t harm anybody, the government can tell protesters when they have spoken too long and its time to go home because the public space they are using is “closed” for a curfew. Protests that take too long, and take up too much space are annoying and inconvenient and not welcome. Speaking with a tent is not an acceptable “manner of speech.” But this form of speech is available to anyone who feels strongly enough about a viewpoint to remain in the same spot for days, even months, no matter the weather.
The 1% were told in the case Citizens Against Rent Control v. Berkeley that they can spend as much money as they want to influence the outcome of a local ballot measure. The 99 percent are told they can protest on the grounds of UC Berkeley, so long as they don’t put up any tents.
You see, you are not allowed to stay warm and protest at the same time. Tents are disruptive.
Justice Stevens, in a dissent, told us that money is property, it is not speech. Likewise, tents would seem to be property, not speech. Stevens noted that the ability to use ones property to “hire gladiators” or to “fund speech by proxy” is an important one in a democracy, but there can and should be limits on this. Five current “justices” on the Supreme Court disagree. The 1% may use their property to express their speech without limit. But, the 99% may not use tents to express their speech. That is annoying. That is unwelcome.
Marie Antoinette, when told that rebellious 99 percenters in France were complaining because they had no bread, reportedly uttered the disdainful retort of “let them eat cake.” Today, Antonin Scalia would perhaps personify this attitude. If told that protesters were complaining they had no speech, he might reply “let them speak ads.”
Free speech can be annoying. In a free society, we sometimes need to get the attention of our fellow citizens by interrupting their daily lives with what could be important information. But, we also need to structure our speech to ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard. Everyone, not just protesters, deserves access to our public spaces.
But, if we’re going to put limits on the time, place, and manner of speech, shouldn’t they apply to everyone, not just the 99%?