Tea party activists in Richmond, Va., watched as liberal Occupy Wall Street protesters paid nothing to use the same park that conservatives paid $8,500 to use for three of its "tax day" rallies. So the tea partyers pushed the issue by demanding a full refund of their fees.
Instead of a check, the Richmond Tea Party received a letter from the city saying it may have failed to pay taxes on ticket and food sales – and it should immediately prepare for an audit.
The city denies allegations that the audit warning was some kind of political retaliation or harassment. But for tea party groups, the city missive highlights long-running complaints of a double standard in the treatment of tea party activists.
The spat in Richmond also underscores how a new era of street protests are forcing cities and courts to reassess free-speech regulations. In many cases, they're trying to ensure that heat-of-the-moment decisions don't violate longstanding principles of public assembly and protest – or favor one set of protesters over another.
Local assessments of costs, public safety, and health concerns "cannot be a mask for an assault on protesters, either tea party or Occupy, for their viewpoint," says Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "Ultimately, the courts will have to say: Is this [incident and others] truly a content- or viewpoint-neutral circumstance, or is this a hidden tactic to attack one group or another?"
While Occupy protesters say they're being punished by cities for engaging in legal civil disobedience, tea party activists have noted instances of public solidarity with the Occupy protests that suggest different free-speech standards based on political affiliation. Such solidarity has been expressed by mayors like Villaraigosa in Los Angeles and Dwight Jones in Richmond.
Tea party activists say they've paid their way and followed the law. But US taxpayers have had to underwrite a grand total of $13 million in Occupy Wall Street-related expenses since the movement began on Sept. 17, the Associated Press reported recently. By some estimates, Richmond taxpayers paid $7,000 to supply the Occupy protesters with portable toilets and other services during the two weeks they camped at Kanawha Plaza.
City spokeswoman Tammy Hawley told Fox News that allegations of political retaliation "are just completely unfounded." The tea party group, she said, was one of 700 groups and businesses that came up during a review as having paid no excise taxes for admissions, lodging, and meals in 2010.
Richmond tea party activists say they had made it clear to the city that they collected no such revenues during their rallies. “The Richmond Tea Party stands for constitutional adherence, and clearly this has been unequal treatment under the law,” tea party member Colleen Owens wrote on the Right Side News website. What's more, she wrote, "We challenged the mayor’s unequal treatment between groups and he responds with even more unequal treatment.”
Law scholars have been in disagreement about the extent to which the Occupy encampments are a legitimate free-speech venue. Of course, civil disobedience is a long-honored form of protest, but when it's been practiced through long-term camping in public parks, that's challenged officials and opened them up to charges of preferential treatment. This is despite the fact that, in many of those same places, mayors have ordered riot police to run protesters off.
Complaining about what seemed to be political preference expressed by the mayor of Portland, Ore., for the Occupy movement, Lewis & Clark Law School professor Jim Huffman said recently that the decision to bend the city's no-camping ordinance was "content-related."
"The mayor was so forthcoming in his agreement with their position," Professor Huffman told the Willamette Week website. "The tea party and lots of other groups have jumped through hoops, applied for the permits, and then done their rallies or whatever they wanted to do."
Courts have already begun to address the sorts of legal challenges to public assembly that haven't been seen since the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s. On Nov. 23, US District Judge Richard Kyle ruled that Occupy protesters in Minneapolis can "assemble any hour of the day," but that local officials can also enforce an overnight-sleeping ban.
“Hence, the parties are going to have to ‘learn to live’ with one another," Judge Kyle wrote.