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There is a right to hold a sign; pitching a tent isn’t the same

Published: Mon, November 14, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

Youngstown has avoided the worst of the “occupy” movements that has been seen in some other areas. It was and is only prudent for Mayor Charles Sammarone to take steps to avoid the circumstances that have led to trouble elsewhere. That is, specifically, Sammarone has taken action to keep “Occupy Youngstown” from becoming an encampment.

Sammarone issued an order late last week that the tent and burn barrel set up by Occupy Youngstown on the sidewalk across from the Man on the Monument be disassembled. If not, he warned, the tent, burn barrel and other accoutrements of a camp would be confiscated. He set a midnight Thursday deadline, and police and firefighters moved in about 7 a.m. Friday and carried out the mayor’s orders. Both sides were respectful, and there wasn’t a hint of violence.

That’s the way it should be. It is the way it has not been in other cities where there have been larger, more established encampments and where police moved in. In Portland, Ore.; San Francisco, Fresno and Oakland, Calif.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albany, N.Y., and Denver, there have been clashes or arrests when police moved to clear out tent cities.

Youngstown was fortunate in that the occupy movement here remained small and there was not an encampment, only a tent, a burn barrel and some chairs and fire wood.

The city was lax in allowing the erection and occupation of even one tent on public property. Tacit recognition for even a short period of time that even a handful of protesters can become squatters is bad policy. Now that the tent is gone, it is incumber on the city to be sure that it is not replaced.

Free speech vs. free camping

This is in no way meant as an attack on anyone’s First Amendment right to free speech or lawful assembly. It is a recognition of the obvious difference that exists between protesting or demonstrating in support of a political idea and establishing an encampment as part of that protest.

Inserting the word occupy in the name of this political movement may have been seen as a clever strategy, but it does not give the movement a First Amendment right to actually occupy someone else’s property or any piece of public property in making their point. Not in New York. Not in St. Louis. Not in San Francisco. And not in Youngstown.

The exercise of free speech in the United States takes many forms and speakers have been given wide latitude by the Supreme Court of the United States. It is one of the strengths of this nation. But while cities have a moral and legal obligation to recognize the free speech rights of citizens — regardless of how popular or unpopular a message may be — cities also have an obligation to enforce laws, including those that prohibit misuse of public property or open burning.

The line between speaking out and camping out has been re-established here, and it is up to city officials and those who are protesting in the name of Occupy Youngstown to maintain that balance.

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