Occupy Wall Street and Their Rights to Freedom of Speech

November 18, 2011

Political Theory


Occupiers at Zuccotti Park Late Tuesday Night (Source: NY Times)

On Tuesday, November 15th, the New York Police Department, on orders given from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cleared out Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan–the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement–after nearly two months.  Citing intolerable health and safety conditions, Mayor Bloomberg explained in a press conference early Tuesday that the movement had been breaking the law established upon the parks inception.  The law “required that it be open for the public to enjoy for passive recreation 24 hours a day.”  According to Bloomberg, the OWS movement had been preventing locals from doing so.

Locals, upon seeing the park for the first time without protesters and tents in almost two months, seemed very happy with the city’s decision.  Several passers-by conveyed their approval.  Marybeth Carragher, a resident of a building that overlooks the park, expressed her satisfaction in the article above, ““I think my neighbors and I are very thankful that the mayor acted, but we remain completely outraged for having to endure this for nine weeks.”

This brings us to an interesting dilemma:  Was the city of New York right in disbanding the Occupy Wall Street Movement in Zuccotti Park?  Looking at the situation through the lens of John Stuart Mill’s text, On Liberty, it seems that the city was indeed justified in its actions.

As we discussed in lecture, Mill believed in a marketplace of ideas, where all ideas could be expressed and the good ones would essentially “beat out” the bad.  However, Mill also made sure to discuss the “harm principle,” the idea that freedom of expression can be suppressed if it is harmful to others in any way.  It could be interpreted that OWS, in its attempt to express its discontent with society’s many problems, was bringing harm to its fellow New Yorkers in some ways.  Mayor Bloomberg was correct in pointing out that Zuccotti Park had been made unavailable to the city because of the movement’s occupation (pun intended) of the area.  OWS’ right to express itself was impeding upon the citizens’ right to enjoy themselves at the park.  Similarly, local residents like Ms. Carragher were also affected negatively by the movement.  Every time they looked out the window, they were greeted by a small, dirty village of protesters and tents rather than the clean, beautiful park they had been enjoying previously.

I personally am torn as to whether or not the city was right in its actions.  While I generally agree with many of the ideas expressed in Mill’s text, I am unsure of the degree of harm that OWS has inflicted upon society.  In my opinion, the movement has brought more inconveniences than any sort of legitimate harm.  It also makes me feel somewhat uneasy that the government can simply squash the nucleus of a movement that has been critical of its actions.  I think, however, the situation is best as it is now.  Although a judge ruled in favor of Mayor Bloomberg’s actions late Tuesday afternoon, protesters are still allowed to remain in Zuccotti Park–just without tents.  This way, both locals–who I’m sure didn’t appreciate the disheveled village that had sprung up at their local park–and protesters can be appeased in some way.

What do you guys think?  Was the city of New York right or wrong in clearing out the park?  Do you think that the harm principle can be applied in this situation?  What would you have done if you were in the Mayor’s shoes?

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