Mayor Terry Bellamy and City Council feel that they must react to the protestors’ encampment and have been trying to do so in their own fashion by passing some new ordinances that would permit camping and regulate the use of tents. These ordinances did not pass at Council’s last meeting, but it was suggested by Council member Esther Manheimer that the little area that the protestors are currently using could be re-zoned to be included into the park system that includes Pack Square, Roger McGuire Green, Vance Monument, Pritchard Park, etc. These spaces are all under a 10 p.m. curfew and the little space next to City Hall is not — that’s how the encampment has managed to legally stand up to now.
Locally, Occupy Asheville’s struggle with City Hall over the group’s First Amendment rights has totally dominated the conversation and the occupiers’ message of solidarity with the larger national movement has been almost forgotten in the local dialogue. The conversation concerning First Amendment rights, though it was not the occupiers’ original concern, nor something that City Council was looking to get involved in, is a very important matter and it needs to be dealt with in a respectful manner.
The Supreme Court has ruled that there can be restrictions placed on First Amendment rights concerning time, place and “manner of speech.” You are not allowed to do something extremely offensive in the middle of downtown rush-hour traffic, for example. When the law goes against the protestors, it must show a “compelling interest” in why it feels the protest is inappropriate.
The situation then with Occupy Asheville and City Hall is a legal situation and decisions made concerning the encampment must not be made according to feelings, sentiment or opinions concerning the Occupy movement. Citizens’ First Amendment rights are necessary for a free country; they are the rights upon which all the others stand.
I hope that our Mayor and the Asheville City Council will remember the sacredness and necessity that our First Amendment rights have in a free society and that they will eliminate the 10 p.m. curfew that is currently in place in downtown Asheville.
— Scott Owen