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Editorial: A refreshing defense of free speech

Chicago Police Officers move arrest 'Occupy Chicago' protesters Sunday morning starting 1 A.M.  October 23 2011 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Chicago Police Officers move in to arrest "Occupy Chicago" protesters Sunday morning starting at 1 A.M. October 23, 2011 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:34AM

Free speech is the cornerstone of a free society. There’s a reason it’s one of the first freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Free speech also can be a headache if you’re responsible for the orderly operation of a large city. It’s easy to view protesters — no matter what their cause — as largely a public safety threat.

That’s why, all too often, officials trying to keep protesters in line squelch lawful public dissent along the way.

It was inspiring, then, to read Cook County Associate Judge Thomas More Donnelly’s ringing endorsement of free speech and assembly Thursday in the case of 92 Occupy protesters who were arrested on two weekends in Grant Park last October while demonstrating against corporate greed.

In his ruling, Donnelly said the defendants had a right to protest and City Hall should have bent over backward — but did not — to permit the exercise of that right.

The ruling was frustrating for city officials because they were proud of the way they dealt with the demonstrators.

Police officers kept their cool. They didn’t pepper-spray Occupy protesters as California police had done. On the first weekend, they waited three hours after the 11 p.m. curfew before arresting anyone, and even then they gave each defendant the option of leaving the park.

The police didn’t throw the book at the defendants, but instead charged them with violating a city ordinance, a minor misdemeanor. Most of the defendants had the charges dismissed by performing between 10 and 20 hours of community service, which also allowed them to return to court and have their records expunged.

But Donnelly ruled that arresting protesters for violating an 11 p.m. park curfew was arbitrary. Late-night protests are common in the United States, even a tradition, and the Grant Park demonstrators were under no obligation to protest only during business hours. Moreover, the city has allowed curfew exceptions over the decades for many other groups, including World War I veterans demanding jobs, Catholics celebrating overnight before a papal mass and supporters of President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.

Parks are a natural place for free assembly, the courts have ruled, and this might be particularly so for Grant Park, which Judge Donnelly described as the “quintessential public forum.”

City Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew said the city is disappointed in the ruling, and on Friday the city filed a notice of appeal. Also on Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel defended the curfew, saying it strikes a balance between public safety and the First Amendment.

But in the city of Haymarket Square and the 1968 Democratic Convention, we need to avoid focusing so much on security that we provoke retaliation. In the case of Occupy — an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street — police could have allowed the protest to proceed as long the demonstrators believed they were communicating their views. If they had tried to stop protesting and set up camp, as Occupy groups had done in other cities, the cops would have been justified in clearing them out.

We have seen what happens when security-minded people get the upper hand. At national political conventions, protesters often are relegated to a remote location where they can’t cause much trouble — and no one can hear them.

Safety and maintenance issues in public places are obviously legitimate concerns for government, Judge Donnelly wrote, but they should be achieved with an absolute minimum curtailing of free speech.

As much of the world has yet to learn: When in doubt, free speech always comes first.

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