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Cities fret over democracy's costs as 'Occupy Wall Street' stretches on

Cities see costs mount as they supply security and other services at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. What are cities' First Amendment obligations to the protesters?

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“The question is, though, what the cost is to the city if we don’t change our economic practices now?” he said. “What is the cost to all of us if we continue on this track where 99 percent of the population is essentially struggling and 1 percent has all our wealth.”

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So far, Boston has gone above and beyond its First Amendment obligation to the Occupy protesters, notes Richard Fallon, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School.

“Cities have an obligation to make a space available to engage in speech and protest activities, but nothing more,” Mr. Fallon says.

The city has provided other amenities – free electricity and trash removal, for instance – to the thousands of protesters who have camped out in the small tent city at the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy at Dewey Square. Such services may help a city to deflect criticism that it is antiprotest, and many demonstrators have now come to expect such treatment from cities.

“These decisions are political and are formed by the constitutional sensibilities of the American population, even though no constitutional requirement exists,” says Fallon.

What the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations show most clearly, perhaps, is that protesting is no cheap gig. This movement has already cost millions of dollars in what is likely its infancy. But recent history is rife with other mass gatherings that were more expensive than the Occupy protests.

• In May, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation to end most collective bargaining by public employees triggered massive statehouse demonstrations. Taxpayers shelled out at least $7.8 million to cover the security costs from agencies around the state.

• Last December, the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department spent about $7.5 million on overtime to control Bay Area residents who protested what they saw as a lenient sentence for a BART police officer who fatally shot a man on New Year’s Day in 2009.

• During a wild week between November and December 1999, protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle cost the city $9.3 million in property damages, loss of sales, and police manpower.

Even the 2007 Red Sox World Series run cost Boston about $1.5 million (though $680,000 were eventually covered by the Red Sox and private businesses).

Those costs are usually seen as a positive impact on the city, observes Mr. Squibb, the Occupy Boston protester.

“If we were another group with any number of local citizens or another local event, there would be a lot of press about how much tourist dollars we’re generating," he says in a phone interview.

Squibb hopes the city ultimately will see the bigger picture.

“We can find hundreds of millions of dollars to supply financiers and fund wars of volition abroad, but we can’t take care of our own, and that’s why we’re trying to take our government back,” he says. “Our protests are really a minor expenditure to preserve democracy in our country.”

IN PICTURES: Before Occupy Wall Street: American protests

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