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An ad that ran in newspapers in Florida and Ohio alleges that in President Barack Obama’s America, protesters would be allowed to live in parks.
"Barack Hussein Obama will move America to force local authorities to allow Occupy protesters to live in parks," it says, among a laundry list of claims on issues from abortion to gay parents to Islamic sharia law.
Occupy Wall Street is a loosely organized movement that famously set up camp in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, 2011, among other public spaces around the country. The city ultimately cleared out the protesters’ tents, and a New York judge upheld the city’s right to do that.
Protesters could protest — they just couldn’t camp.
Does Obama want to change the law?
There’s a First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, but local governments are generally allowed to enforce time and place restrictions on those gatherings.
Specifically, the Supreme Court has ruled that governments may outlaw sleeping in parks, even during protests. Clark vs. Community for Creative Nonviolence, a 1984 case that involved a tent city in Washington, D.C., established that as long as rules are content-neutral — apply to everyone equally, no matter their message — sleeping in public is subject to "reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions."
One way the federal government might "force" local governments to allow protesters to live in parks might be to overturn that Supreme Court case, establishing precedent that the First Amendment right to assembly extends to camping out. A president can’t do that.
That’s assuming he wanted to.
William J. Murray, chairman of GINGPAC, provided us with three articles to back up the ad’s claim. The stories from the Washington Post, NBC New York and ABC document the president’s embrace of the protesters’ message: "I understand the frustrations being expressed," Obama said.
But the articles don’t address whether Obama believes protesters should be allowed to camp out indefinitely in parks.
We looked for evidence that Obama might be interested in forcing authorities to allow such a thing. We found the opposite.
Take this exchange between a journalist and White House press secretary Jay Carney during a briefing on Jan. 20, 2012, which confirms the need to "balance" First Amendment concerns with "public safety and public health concerns" — in essence, current law. Carney, rather than criticize local police action, deferred to local authorities.
QUESTION: The Occupy Wall Street protesters are making headlines again. As you know, over the weekend 400 protesters were arrested in Oakland and now, today, the National Park Service is expected to clear out protesters potentially as we speak from a site here in D.C. What is your reaction? And is the administration concerned that some of these protesters are taking things too far?
CARNEY: Well, with regards to Oakland, that -- that's obviously a local law enforcement matter. Here in Washington, I would refer you for specifics to the U.S. National Park Service and the U.S. Park Police. And our position has been and continues to be that we need to balance First Amendment concerns of the right to demonstrate, the right to speak freely and -- with public safety concerns and public health concerns. And we understand that whether -- that local law enforcement, as well as in the case -- in this case the National Park Service and U.S. Park Police, are -- are weighing those considerations when they make these decisions and that's appropriate.
We found no evidence Obama has sought such an accommodation for the protesters. The president himself didn’t raise the issue in several briefings and interviews we found that touched on the protests. Rather, he focused on the content of the protests, such as regulation of Wall Street.
We chatted with Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, which followed the protests. Did the federal government show any indication of wanting to push against established law allowing local governments to outlaw camping?
"I saw no evidence of that anywhere during the Occupy movement," he told us. "At the worst, it's a complete distortion. At the least, somebody misunderstands a request by citizens for due process."
We reached out to Occupy Wall Street.
"It sounds like a bunch of crazy propaganda nonsense," said Dana Balicki, a member of the press team.
An ad from GINGPAC claimed, "Barack Hussein Obama will move America to force local authorities to allow Occupy protesters to live in parks."
There’s a First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, but local governments are generally allowed to enforce time and place restrictions on those gatherings. An expert from the First Amendment Center told us he saw no evidence that the president was interested in changing the law and we found no evidence of that in our searches. To the contrary, we found evidence of the administration supporting current law. And a president can’t overturn a Supreme Court decision, anyway. Pants on Fire!
PolitiFact, PAC's newspaper ad filled with falsehoods," Sept. 26, 2012
GINGPAC.org, "Barack Hussein Obama will move America to …" September 2012
Email interview with William J. Murray, chairman, GINGPAC, Sept. 26, 2012
NBC New York, "Obama Says Wall Street Protests Show Widespread Frustration, Predicts 2012 Effects," Oct. 13, 2011
Washington Post, "Obama’s risky embrace of Occupy Wall Street," Oct. 20, 2011
ABC News, "Obama: Occupy Wall Street ‘Not That Different’ From Tea Party Protests," Oct. 18, 2011
Interview with Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, Sept. 26, 2012
Interview on Sept. 25, 2012 with Dana Balicki, Occupy Wall Street press team, Sept. 25, 2012
Los Angeles Times, "Timeline: Occupy Wall Street," Jan. 2, 2012
First Amendment Center, "Freedom to assemble, not camp out indefinitely," Oct. 18, 2011
First Amendment Center, "Judge rules against Occupy Wall Street encampment," Nov. 15, 2011
Illinois First Amendment Center, "Court Cases - Right to Peaceably Assemble," accessed Sept. 26, 2012
Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute, "Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence," accessed Sept. 26, 2012
White House, "News Conference by the President," Oct. 6, 2011
White House, "Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Cincinnati, OH, 9/17/12," Sept. 17, 2012
White House, "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney," Jan. 30. 2012
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