Charlotte Observer: Maybe the city needs a camping ban for #OccupyCLT, #DNC2012 groups

Has hell officially frozen over? It’s not often that the Charlotte Observer and I agree on anything but on the issue of the City of Charlotte needing to preserve the free speech rights of Occupiers while at the same time acting in the interest of public health and safety, the local fish wrap and I stand (mostly) in solidarity:

The modest clan of protesters that comprise Occupy Charlotte pose little more than a horticultural threat to our city at this point. There’s just a dozen or two of them now, exercising free speech while tromping on the grass at the Old City Hall and annoying local Republican leaders.

But in less than a year, that handful of overnight campers is sure to become a larger spectacle – and probably in spots beyond uptown. The Democratic National Convention will bring an onslaught of protest next September – not just local Occupiers, but groups from around the country and across the ideological spectrum. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County need a plan for their land.

This week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave officials here a framework from which to build when he barred overnight camping from Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the Occupy movement. Bloomberg argued that health and safety concerns outweighed protesters’ rights to free speech, and a state Supreme Court judge agreed. In his ruling Monday, Judge Michael D. Stallman reminded all of what the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1985: “Even protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.”

Yet in that same 1985 Supreme Court case, the court said we also must measure whether “Government’s interest in limiting the use of its property to its intended purpose outweighs the interest of those wishing to use the property for other purposes.” That means officials need to be reasonable about the restrictions they place on public land.

Currently, Charlotte and Mecklenburg don’t have ordinances that prevent what Occupiers are doing at Old City Hall. City and county officials should be proactive by specifying how land can be used uptown and elsewhere, but any plan they develop should be based on two simple principles: Respect the free speech of protesters, and protect the public’s safety and interests of local businesses.

In New York, Bloomberg’s ban showed that public officials can accomplish these seemingly contradictory objectives. NYC didn’t ban protesters from parks, but they eliminated camping by banning tents and sleeping bags along with lying down on the ground or a bench and snoozing.

Here’s yours truly, back on November 1st:

[…] the Tea Party managed to get their points across quite well across the country when they staged rallies – and they didn’t have to occupy. They also followed local city codes (even paid their respective city the required fees in some instances, which occupiers have NOT). The issue is not about government “squelching free speech.” When public safety/health/resources become negatively impacted, it’s a whole different ballgame – and it appears at least some of the Democrat mayors in the big cities these “occupations” are taking place in understand this. When these occupiers get finished patting themselves on the back for accomplishing absolutely nothing, maybe they’ll understand, too. Until then…

And two days later:

As I’ve said before, yes, we all get to enjoy the right to freedom of speech in this country, but when your free speech starts leading to public safety/health/resources issues, then public officials have the right – no, the obligation to step in and try to resolve the situation.

Will Charlotte’s city leaders act responsibly on behalf of both free speech and public health/safety/business interests when it comes to both “Occupiers” and the much bigger Democrat National Convention protest onslaught we’ll see next September when our celebrity President and his party roll into town? We’ll find out in January when the city and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department leaders unveil a proposed ordinance that would, among other things, essentially ban camping on all city property.

As they say, stay tuned …

Related Reading: USA Today – Poll: ‘Occupy’ movement fails to capture Americans’ interest

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