Free Speech and Houston

Fostered by my interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement and angered by the recent use of violent force to tear down the occupations expressed well by Professor Juan Cole in NYPD Attack on OWS and the End of the First Amendment:

Not only did the police, at the orders of billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, abruptly move on the protesters, they are alleged to have deliberately kept the press away, which is clearly unconstitutional if true.

The US constitution prohibits Congress from restricting the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and to petition for redress of grievances. For a history of the relevant US Supreme Court cases, see this link.


So the government has invaded private space, declaring it public for purposes of monitoring the public (a violation of the Fourth Amendment). And it has pushed the public out of formerly designated public space by allowing its privatization, so as to prevent the public from demonstrating and peaceably assembling and seeking redress of grievances.

I was concerned for our small group of OccupyHouston participants who seem to be constantly confronted with the ever-widening definition of a “tent” as articulated by City Hall and HPD

At approximately 3:00 PM, the occupation site at Tranquility Park was approached by several uniformed officers from the police and fire departments, including a police captain and Fire Chief Galvan. Protesters were instructed to remove tarps placed over tables which were being used to protect food, electronic equipment and medical supplies both on top of and underneath the tables from today’s showers. The practice has been permissible throughout the duration of the occupation, which has now exceeded a month, and today the tarps were suddenly deemed “tents” and therefore in violation of the current policy. The protesters refused to remove the tarps, forming a line and chanting, while police forcibly removed all tarps covering the tables. One occupy participant was arrested in the process and remains in custody.

The action occurred only a few moments after today’s City Council meeting, where several occupy participants commended City Council and HPD for their respectful and cooperative disposition during the past several weeks before requesting action on the increasingly contentious issue of the use of tarps, tents and canopies in the park. It is exactly one week since 6 other protesters were arrested over a tarp being used to protect similar equipment, and three weeks since the last appearance of the protesters at a City Council meeting, where they requested permission for the use of tarps, tents and canopies. Also addressed during the incident were some concerns of the fire department over the use of extension cords, with which the protesters respectfully complied.

For previous history of problems see 27 Houston cops arrest six protesters for having tarp in park This was during a storm with tornado warnings. The 27 police officers went to the scene in 19 squad cars confronted the group around 11 p.m. about a tarp they were using to protect their equipment from the elements after being assured the night before that it was OK.

A total of 10 Occupy Houston participants were detained during the course of the arrests. Three individuals who were filming the event were detained for jaywalking after attempting to cross Walker St. at Bagby, where a police cruiser was obstructing the crosswalk. Another participant was arrested while requesting the name and badge number of one of the arresting officers. Three of the detained persons were released after a period of time, while the remaining 7 participants were booked into the municipal jail facility.

I came across some interesting information about Free Speech Areas in Houston that I think worth noting. Here’s the designated area at City Hall Plaza:

“The area inside of the red square only is considered the First Amendment Expression Area. This is a 10ft x 10ft square located at Latitude: 29°38’9.39″N Longitude: 95°26’7.82″W”

Click to take a look.

From the Parks and Recreation Department—

“First Amendment Expression Areas are open to users for exercise of their First Amendment rights during park hours. Locations of First Amendment Expression Areas are listed below in alphabetic order. Although it is not a requirement of the area’s use, it is recommended that all users register to avoid conflicts. Users must register with the HPARD Permits Office (832) 395-7012 in order to reserve the area in advance.”

Isn’t this grand?

In this copy of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I found no reference to a size, let alone longitude and latitude, nor did I see anything at all about hours nor a permit for free speech. Note also that the Supreme Court has held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies the First Amendment to each state, including any local government.

What’s wrong with Houston?

If you would like to express your concern about free speech and support for OccupyHouston I suggest you contact:

Mayor Annise D. Parker
City of Houston
P.O. Box 1562 Houston, TX 77251
Phone: 3-1-1, or 713.837.0311
Email: or

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