RALEIGH – One of the pretenses of the Occupy This & Occupy That movement is that it represents “democracy in action.” Occupation veterans are proud of the movement’s general assemblies, where protesters attempt to settle all issues through unanimous consent and hokey-pokey hand signals, and the general inchoateness of the endeavor.
I hate to rain on their parade – Mother Nature has been doing that a bit this week without any prompting from me – but I feel compelled to point out that the Occupation movement exhibits a lack of understanding or appreciation for basic rules of civil society and representative government.
To start with, there’s all this business about “occupying” other people’s property. That’s called trespassing, not free speech. Let me try to make this as simple as possible, so even an overeducated, underemployed graduate student can understand.
Freedom of speech means that you have the right to say, print, broadcast, or distribute whatever message you like about whatever subject you like. It means that the government has no legitimate authority to punish or silence you just because some government official, or even all government officials, may dislike what you are saying.
To exercise your freedom of speech, however, is not to give you some sort of special authority to violate either the equal right of others to speak or other rights they enjoy, such as the right to control access and use of their homes, lawns, businesses, and other property.
In short, if you are on your own property, you have every right to say whatever you want, as long as you want. If you seek to enter someone else’s property to yell at them, they have every right to have you blocked or ejected. As for public property such as parks or government lawns, you have the right to obtain a permit to conduct a demonstration for a particular period of time, as long as you respect the rights of others and clean up after yourselves. You don’t have to right to “take over” or “occupy” such sites, however, because they are neither campsites nor stages furnished for your self-gratification.
Some protesters have defended their trespass of public or private property by claiming to be practicing civil disobedience. That’s a gross misunderstanding of what civil disobedience is and a gross insult to past practitioners of it.
Civil disobedience is a means of challenging an unjust law. By breaking the law – by sitting down at a lunch counter deemed “whites only” by the local authorities, for example – you expect to be arrested. The idea is to demonstrate the unjustness of the law in a way likely to draw significant media coverage and public interest to your cause.
If Occupy Raleigh protesters, for example, were denied the privilege of camping out at the State Capitol for the next few months because Raleigh officials didn’t like their left-wing message, or their face jewelry, or the cut of their jib, that might be a decision deserving of civil disobedience. But simply to insist that parks, government buildings, and other public property be kept open for their intended use by the general public – for recreation, public business, historical preservation, etc. – is not to muzzle anyone’s free speech.
In the case of concerns about Wall Street criminality, then, it might well considered an act of civil disobedience to enter the premises of the New York Stock Exchange and refuse to leave until arrested. It is not an act of civil disobedience to squat on someone else’s property, trash it, sleep on it, and then insist that you not be arrested and removed. That’s just trespassing and vandalism, kids.
Finally, for all their protestations about free speech, the Occupation crowd seems remarkably uninterested in the constitutional rights of corporate shareholders, managers, and employees who may want to pool their resources to express political opinions. Most of the lists of demands from Occupy groups include the overturning of recent Supreme Court decisions protecting these free-speech rights.
Unless, of course, the corporation in question owns liberal media outlets.
So, what we have here is a group of people who believe they are entitled to violate the free speech and property rights of others. I don’t care how many times they flutter their fingers – that’s undemocratic.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.