Just how free is free speech in Athens?

It is 4 a.m. and the Occupy protestors are sleeping in tents outside of City Hall. Blue lights flash and voices rise. A perimeter of police vehicles surround the campsite and demand the protestors’ immediate eviction.

By the time the sun shines on downtown Athens, the Occupy protest is nothing but a memory of yesterday.

This scuffle between protestors and police is just one of many recently occurring in the city of Athens. Protestors must either obtain permits or stay within designated free speech zones to exercise their rights to assemble. Such limitations beg the question, just how free is free speech in Athens?

For the Associate Dean of Students at UGA, Jan Barham, speech at UGA is very free. “The university does a great job of allowing the students to express their opinions. UGA is a market place of ideas,” she said. The University, she said, has had free speech zones for at least 12 years. The zones include Tate Plaza and Memorial Hall Plaza. Students do not need to obtain permits in order to assemble in those locations.

Students must, however, fill out a Request for Assembly form to assemble in locations other than the free speech zones. The document asks for the purpose of the protest and details the times of the protest.

Once the students fill out the form, they must meet with Barham to discuss the provisions of the permit. She then issues the permit and hands over a copy of it to the UGA Police.

There have been eight UGA sanctioned protests this academic year. The University has not denied a single request for a protest permit this academic year, according to Barham.

Brain Underwood believes that “the free speech policy at UGA severely restricts the number of locations where it deems free speech demonstrations to be acceptable.” Underwood is the president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a student organization that protects individual liberties.

The YAL organized a silent demonstration last year in which they numerically displayed the country’s national debt. The signs sat against the brick wall of the Miller Learning Center along the intersection of Baxter and Lumpkin. “It did not block pathways, ergo it did not inhibit people’s rights to use the sidewalks for their intended purpose,” Underwood said. The UGA Police instructed the students to move the “debt clock” away from the intersection. It was blocking the sidewalk.

The incident deeply upset Underwood and gathered a large amount of attention on campus. Underwood felt as if his right to free speech was taken away. He believes that the University needs to find a different way to balance the rights of free speech and use of public property.

Ensuring easy public access to public property during protests is the main concern for both the UGA Police and Athens Clarke County Police. Assistant Police Chief Allen Brown said the police evicted the City Hall protestors earlier in March for this very reason. “They were blocking access to the City Hall walkway around the statue,” he said.

The organizers of the City Hall protest do not find this reasoning adequate. Tim Denson, a member and organizer of the Occupy Athens movement, said the 4 a.m. eviction was a showing of excessive force and intimidation. He claimed the protestors offered to move locations numerous times. The police, he said, ignored them. “They just kept threatening to arrest us,” Denson said.

Eighteen Athens Clarke County Police officers and three Homeland Security officers came to break up the protest of 12 Occupy members.

Assistant Police Chief Brown justified the early morning assignment as a way to avoid big crowds. He also stated there are more available police at 4 a.m. due to low 911 call activity.

Denson stated that he and the fellow organizers did not obtain a permit for the City Hall protest. “We found it legally unnecessary,” Denson said.

Protestors wishing to assemble in Athens must obtain permits from the Athens Clarke County Police. The permit affirms the constitutional right that individuals have to assemble and protest. The police take anywhere from two business days to two weeks to approve the permit request. The permit requires the individual filling it out to approximate the amount of possible protestors. It also asks what the assembly is protesting.

Denson said the Occupy movement did obtain a permit for their winter protest at the Arch. He stated that the movement had countless issues with the UGA Police.

“The UGA Police were much less hospitable to us than the Athens Clarke County police,” he said. The UGA Police attempted to arrest a group of Occupy protestors for standing on the steps of the Arch. UGA Police argued it was university property, and the protestors did not have the proper documentation for being there.

Denson stands by their permit, claiming it specifically said they would be protesting at the Arch.

The tension between the UGA Police and Occupy movement persisted throughout their winter protest. “They changed the restriction of how we were able to protest there many times. They would tell us we could have a canopy, and then come back the next day and tell us we couldn’t,” Denson said.

In mid October, the UGA Police and 50 protestors finally came to a standoff at 7 a.m. It ended with the Occupy movement moving in front of the fence and away from the Arch.

It is the duty of the police to ensure public safety. With all protests come the inevitable disagreements between police and protestors. Police and city officials are permitted to regulate free speech on the basis on time, place and manner restrictions.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there is always a risk of limiting peoples’ voices with such regulations. Char Fisher Jackson, the legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, said government officials and universities can make permit polices and free speech zones. These restrictions must, however be in accordance with every Americans’ constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

Jackson admits that she has received calls concerning the limitations of free speech during the Occupy protest last winter. “I must remain confidential on those matters though,” she said.

She has worked with colleges in Georgia to the abolish free speech zones the ACLU has deemed unconstitutional. She recently worked with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to do away with the free speech zones at Valdosta State University.

“Free speech zones are down right unconstitutional,” said Denson. He believes there should be no laws restricting the right to peacefully assemble. Denson is angry that UGA still has free speech zones when other colleges have removed them.

Not all protest leaders feel the way Denson does. Danny Matatiaho is the past president of UGA’s Dawgs for Israel. He arranged a protest of support at the Arch for returning Israeli solider Gilad Shalit in October 2011.

Matatiaho had to obtain a permit from the Athens Clarke County Police department to protest beyond the steps of the Arch.

“Athens is only looking out for us,” he said. Matatiaho believes the permit requirements and free speech zones are there to keep people safe. He added, “the police don’t care about your opinion, they just want you to express your beliefs in a safe way.”

Matatiaho was in fact struck by the display of free speech on the day he held his protest. That afternoon, an opposition group against the return of Gilad Shalit showed up at the Arch. Occupy Athens was also there protesting at the same time.

The three groups coexisted in one area, all peacefully protesting their respective causes. Undercover police stood watch across the street according to Matatiaho. They were concerned about the religious undertone of his protest and knew a dissenting group would be present. Their covert presence made Matatiaho uncomfortable, but he felt safe knowing they were there.

The city’s permit policies and UGA’s free speech zones have become major factors to consider when exercising free speech and assembly in Athens. Was this what the founding fathers meant when they created the first amendment? Or is this a modern addition to update the constitution written centuries ago? Whatever the answer may be, the tension created by the opposing beliefs has led to local angst that is making headlines.

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