As more and more cities send in heavily armed police officers to break up the Occupy Wall Street protests, John Whitehead is one of the very few conservative voices speaking out for the protesters and, more importantly, for the First Amendment. He writes:
Unfortunately, the tendency on the part of government and law enforcement officials to purge dissent has largely undermined the First Amendment’s safeguards for political free speech. The Occupy Movement, and the government’s response to its encampments in public spaces, perfectly illustrates the fact that there is no longer any such thing as unfettered free speech in America today.
The very fact that protesters have had to resort to occupying various public spaces in order to open up a national dialogue about issues of concern says a lot about the state of the First Amendment, or rather the sad state of it. Moreover, the heavy-handed police response to the Occupiers shows the degree to which the corporate state will go to silence these protesters and discourage any further uprisings.
There was a time when communities had town squares—public areas where people gathered to exchange information, ideas, and do business. These served a vital function in America’s history, allowing opinions and ideas—whether good or bad—to be aired and debated. Yet as areas once open to the public have been overtaken by state and corporate interests, traditional public forums for free speech have all but disappeared. Town squares have been replaced by private shopping malls and parking lots, neither of which are freely accessible to individuals hoping to voice their views. Consequently, protesters, even those not engaging in civil disobedience, are shut out, sometimes forcibly, from public areas, while attempts to peaceably assemble are overburdened by government regulations and permit requirements.
Furthermore, the court-sanctioned use by the government and private entities of so-called “free speech zones” to isolate protesters, even in public parks and college campuses, makes clear that the right to speak freely in public has eroded. Concentrating, monitoring and minimizing the effects of protests are the real reasons for using designated protest zones. Obviously, protesters are only perceived as dangerous because their message challenges the status quo. It’s the message that is feared. Thus, efforts to confine and control the dissenters are really efforts to confine and control the effect of their messages, whatever those might be. This is true whether they’re challenging environmental policies, free trade agreements or the political campaigns of candidates running for public office.