Testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the National Park Service made clear its legal position for declining to enforce laws against camping on federal land with respect to the Occupy DC protest group. But the Supreme Court has already weighed in on a near-identical case and found that enforcing laws against camping does not violate First Amendment rights, as the NPS claims.
“The core of [Occupy DC’s] First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site,” explained NPS director Jonathan Jarvis. In other words, “occupying,” or camping on the land in question, is integral to the protest’s message and self-identification and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The act of occupying is itself an act of expression.
The Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in the 1984 case Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence. The NPS had granted CCNV a permit to conduct demonstrations on the National Mall designed to bring attention to the plight of the homeless. But when CCNV set up a tent city – and looked to camp out in it – to drive its point home, the NPS denied its request for a permit that would allow them to sleep there.
CCNV sued, arguing that the act of sleeping in the tent city was integral to its efforts to demonstrate the suffering of homeless people – the entire purpose of the protest. The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled 7-2 that NPS’s enforcement of the anti-camping statute did not violate CCNV’s First Amendment rights.
As summarized in the syllabus for the decision: