Slate writer Raymond Vasvari recently observed that, “for every uplifting paragraph” of precedent vindicating rights to protest, there are a “thousand cases bending an abstract right to the prosaic realities of protest.” We may never learn the extent to which Occupy Wall Street protesters were classified “enemies within,” and subject to coordinated intergovernmental suppression. But we can observe, with professors Ackerman and Benkler, that the “irony of free speech” is reaching a breaking point:
Whatever else it accomplishes, Occupy Wall Street is revealing distortions in our current understanding of the First Amendment. In recent decisions, the Supreme Court has protected Wall Street’s constitutional right to pour millions into political campaigns. But as presently construed, the First Amendment isn’t an obstacle when it comes to silencing the Occupiers. . . .
Instead of hiding behind obsolete court decisions, big city mayors must recognize that they are on the constitutional front-line. Michael Bloomberg is failing this test when he keeps Occupiers out of New York’s public parks and tolerates the arrests of dozens of protesters, providing an example for similar actions in Boston, Denver, and San Diego. In contrast, Antonio Villaraigoso is showing that leadership on behalf of the First Amendment is well within the realm of the politically possible. Los Angeles has not only avoided arrests, but seems to be expanding available public space as the protest swells. Similarly, the U.S. Parks police are on the right track in giving the demonstrators a four month extension on Freedom Plaza.
How to explain Mayor Bloomberg’s deviance from constitutional ideals? Maybe he’s one of the worried wealthy, realizing that he can only afford another 170 of his trademark $100 million dollar political campaigns with his fortune of $17 billion. Ensconced in an alternate reality of privilege, Bloomberg retails stories of struggling and put-upon banks. It is his very plutocratic disconnection from the daily life of his subjects that makes an extraordinary protest like OWS necessary.