Occupy Protests and the Bill of Rights

Summary

The Occupy protests began in New York City on September 17, 2011 and have spread across the country to Chicago, Nashville, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and many other cities. Many gatherings have been peaceful. In some areas, police have arrested protesters for trespassing, failing to disperse, breaking curfews, or not possessing the proper permits to assemble. In cities where protests became violent, some were arrested for offenses such as destruction of property and throwing items at police. As the protests continue, issues related to the Bill of Rights have come into play. Use this e-lesson to discuss the constitutional issues raised by the protests and the ways governments have responded to them.

Student Handout (PDF)

Resources:

Freedom of Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition:

Discussion Questions:

1. Which First Amendment freedoms of the Occupy protesters are protected under the Bill of Rights? Can the government limit these freedoms for any reason? What reasons? Is the government justified in limiting these freedoms in the OWS case? Why or why not?

2. Do the Occupy protesters have a right to assemble on public property? On private property?

3. Are restrictions on individual liberty, such as curfews, justified in this situation? Why or why not?

4. What is the relationship (if any) between the right peaceably to assemble and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances?

5. Are the Occupy protestors petitioning government for a redress of grievances?

Private Property:

Discussion Questions:

1. Are protesters infringing upon the rights of other citizens or business owners regarding issues of noise, sanitation, power usage, property rights, etc?

2. Do the Occupy protesters have a right to assemble on public property? On private property?

3. Should police be allowed to confiscate private property of the protesters including supplies and food?
Are cities justified in closing public areas, cutting off power to protest areas, or removing bathroom facilities?

Criminal Procedure and Due Process:

Discussion Questions:

1. Are the police departments and other government agencies acting within their just powers to break up protests by using tear gas, force, projectiles, or other means?
2. Why are some police departments and city officials acting against the protesters while others are not?

Citizen Juries:

Discussion Questions:

1. Are the arrests of Occupy protesters justified? Under what circumstances are they justified? Under what circumstances are they unjustified?
2. Should the protesters have the right to a trial by jury?

Extension:

Put students into groups to role-play the different groups involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests – the government officials, the protesters, and the citizens of the surrounding neighborhoods.  Have each group discuss and explain their stance and how it relates to the Bill of Rights. Groups should also prepare Bill of Rights-related questions for members of the other groups.