Can Philly force the ‘Occupiers’ to leave?

    Last week, It’s Our Money took a look at the cost to taxpayers of the Occupy Philly protest. When we reported this on our blog, ourmoneyphilly.com, some commenters called for the city to boot the protesters out. Which got us wondering: Could the city just boot the protesters out? 

    On today’s It’s Our Money podcast, Doron Taussig ponders the question.

    Let’s leave aside for a second the ethical question of whether the city should consider booting the Occupy Philly protesters out of City Hall.

    And let’s put aside the point that the Occupy Philly protests are addressing a fiscal problem much, much greater than the city spending a few thousand extra dollars on police protection.

    Because for the moment, we’re just curious about this question: Does the city have a choice in the matter? Or are these protests, from a budgetary perspective, the First Amendment version of a snowstorm?

    The First Amendment is what the Nutter administration has been pointing to when asked about the cost of Occupy Philly. But the First Amendment isn’t absolute – you can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater and all that. The government is allowed to restrict the time, place and manner of expression, as long as those restrictions are “reasonable” – meaning they don’t target the content of expression, and the government has good reasons for them.

    So what does this tell us about the city’s ability to restrict a tent city outside City Hall?

    Clearly the city could apply restrictions to Occupy Philly in a “content neutral” way. It could just say, “no tent cities at City Hall, for anyone,” and it wouldn’t be discriminating. The real question is if it would have a good reason for cracking down.

    Well, we did a little bit of reading, checked in with a lawyer, and we think the best answer we can offer here is: Kind of?

    Though the Managing Director’s Office says Occupy Philly has caused problems with public urination, litter and graffiti, the protests have not been especially disruptive. The city could probably justify telling the protesters they can’t camp out overnight. And it could make them move: In fact, it has said it will once construction starts on Dilworth Plaza later this month.

    But then the question becomes: What would restrictions like these accomplish?

    Would the city save that much money with protesters coming every morning and leaving every night? And would those savings really be worth potentially alienating the protesters?

    Bottom line here: If the city wants to find a way to spend less on the protests, it probably needs to consider either doing as the protesters have suggested, and reducing the police presence at the site, or trying to bill the protesters for some of their costs. Because the First Amendment makes these protests almost as unavoidable as a snowstorm.

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