Texas Civil Rights Project released a statement regarding the City’s attempts to discredit and dismantle Occupy Austin…
Texas Civil Rights Project
James C. Harrington
7 December 2011
Statement from the Texas Civil Rights Project regarding Occupy Austin, by Jim Harrington:
We’re greatly concerned about the statements that Austin officials are releasing, both publicly and behind the scenes, in an apparent attempt to undermine and perhaps even delegitimize the Occupy Austin Movement. Many of those statements are incomplete, and even disingenuous.
The statements take two approaches: one is to raise unfounded questions about the protesters themselves; the other, is to question the expenditure of taxpayer funds to protect First Amendment rights.
As to the first point, any impartial observer must concede the overall peacefulness of the protesters, especially given their numbers and length of time they have been at the city hall free speech plaza. To be sure, some incidents have occurred. Some have been provoked by unwise decisions of authorities, such as the Halloween night move against protesters because they had food tables set up at the site. This issue is in the courts. Some of the incidents have resulted from homeless people attaching themselves to the demonstration, sometimes even gravitating there just for food. That is unfortunate but more a symptom of Austin’s homelessness issues than anything to do with the Occupy protests.
More to the point, however, is that the authorities use these isolated incidents to paint a broad canvass against the protesters, when the overwhelming majority of protestors are and have continuously been totally peaceable. Even worse, the authorities often relate sketchy, unsubstantiated charges for which they never offer any proof other than the own prejudicial hyperbole. One would hope that the media would begin to call the authorities to task on this irresponsible tactic against Occupy Austin, and investigate the facts.
On the second point, about taxpayer costs, again this is a tactic being used here in Austin and in other venues in an attempt to delegitimize the message of the protests. It is precisely maneuvers like this by government authorities against which Occupy Austin protests. If the City was really concerned about the expense, most of which is due to the number of police it deploys at the free speech plaza, it might consider trimming back the amount of officers stationed there, which is clearly excessive.
Moreover, if the City was really concerned about taxpayers’ money, it ought to end its blatantly unconstitutional procedure of summarily “banning” protesters from the free speech plaza, which clearly violates the First Amendment and exposes the City to liability. One would hope that the media—as both bastions and beneficiaries of the First Amendment—would begin to report not just on costs related to the protests, but on the critical free speech issues involved when the city’s government bans protestors for exercising their First Amendment rights. These bans have been imposed for periods of up to a year. This issue, too, is in the federal court. Some of the bannings are clearly ridiculous (and unconstitutional) – such as banning a person from returning to City Hall for any purpose (including to engage in free speech) because his dog got off its leash.
We call upon the City to end its efforts to discredit the Occupy Austin movement and to respect the First Amendment, clearly our most cherished and valuable democratic right in our Constitution. The City should divert its resources elsewhere for legitimate purposes, rather than for doggedly using and defending unconstitutional measures. And we encourage the media to report not just on the costs of protecting free speech, but also the benefits of that speech and the harms that occur when the government restricts lawful speakers from protesting against it. The cost to citizens of limiting free speech is incalculable.