Freedom of speech clashed with freedom to selectively enforce laws on Dec. 5, and that battle ended in five protestors being arrested just north of downtown Orlando.
As a land founded on the rule of law, America frequently finds itself debating how and when those laws can be justly applied. Take for example laws that have existed for decades and are rarely enforced but, as they are still law, can be wielded by police at will.
In Florida, if you forget to use your turn signal to change lanes, you (and likely every other driver on the road) have broken the law. But that’s child’s play compared to some other rarely enforced laws. If you live and sleep with your significant other but you’re not married, you can be arrested for it. The legality of women skydiving on Sunday is contingent upon their marital status.
But when was the last time you heard of somebody actually being arrested for living with his girlfriend?
In Orlando, city code makes it illegal to camp out in a city park. For the past two months Occupy Orlando protestors have been doing just that, brandishing signs and slogans while camping out along the edge of Senator Beth Johnson Park as part of an extended protest, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City.
But they’re not allowed to do so; at least the camping out part. Though they’re exercising their right to protest, they’re still breaking a city ordinance. Legally, police are allowed to make them remove their tents, and to arrest anybody who doesn’t comply. But they’re also allowed to jail you for having sex if it’s not in the missionary position.
Sick of the protestors using the park, Orlando decided that now was the time to get righteous about a code enforcement rule that prevents camping on city property. The law was designed to curb vagrancy, not freedom of speech, but in enforcing it against people who are obviously protesting, the effect is the same: quelling freedom of speech.
In this instance, the occupation of the park itself is in a gray area of what’s defined as free speech. It’s an organized protest that’s manifested itself as an indefinite sit-in, something first seen en masse during the anti-war protests of the 1960s.
Legally government officials can’t end a peaceful protest, but they can do everything within their power to make protesting as difficult as possible. That includes enforcing as many laws as necessary to keep protestors out of the public eye.
Visibility is the protestors’ greatest weapon. In order for a protest to catch on, it must first be seen. In a country in love with capitalism, they’re simply leveraging the great location to do some free advertising for their grievances. Absent dedicated media coverage, visibility is all they have. Erecting a tent city within view of a well-traveled interstate freeway seems like a good start.
To police and city officials, taking that visibility away could be a good finish.