On November 15th, New York Supreme Court Judge Michael D. Stallman denied an application by Occupy Wall Street protesters for a temporary restraining order preventing police from removing them from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Judge Stallman found that the First Amendment does not extend to the protesters’ practice of camping in the park overnight. Specifically, Judge Stallman held that the protesters “have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators, and other installations to the exclusion of the owner’s reasonable rights and duties to maintain Zuccotti Park, or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely.”
It seems unlikely that protesters would be successful in appealing the court’s judgment. Complicating protesters’ argument that camping in the park should be protected as free speech is the fact that the park is privately owned. Harvard University urban planning professor Jerold Kayden notes that the owners of the park are “allowed to adopt rules for managing their space.”
It is unclear what affect this holding will have on the actions of other cities experiencing the Occupy Wall Street protests. Protesters complain that they are increasingly being arrested or evicted from areas in cities around the world. Notably, however, occupy protesters in Boston have won protection from being evicted from Boston’s Dewey Square. On November 16th, the Suffolk Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order preventing police from evicting protesters from Dewey Square or removing their tents and personal belongings. There will be another hearing to determine the long-term status of protesters in Dewey Square, but protesters say that they are optimistic about their continued ability to protest in the square.
I think it’s also worth noting that the primary scrutiny in these suits will focus not necessarily on the protesters’ right to protest (at least on public property), but the validity and neutrality of the various state and local governments’ efforts to evict or curtail them. It may well be that we need some kind of “thicker” conception of the freedom of assembly in these situations, but the law as it stands analyzes any restrictions according to the usual “time, place, and manner” standard for valid public forum restrictions. As long as the restrictions aren’t pretextual or content-discriminatory, the right to “occupy” is on thin ice, even outside of the unique public-private situation of Zuccotti Park.