BOISE, Idaho -- Does the public's right to assemble and protest extend to pitching tents and holding cookouts on the capitol mall?
That's a question the House State Affairs Committee will address this morning, when it votes on a bill to prohibit camping on state property outside of designated campgrounds.
The focus of the legislation is the Occupy Boise tent encampment, which is located across the street from the Legislature.
The camp, which has more than a dozen tents, is located next to an empty building, on property scheduled to be turned into a parking lot.
Although no one has to pass through the camp to reach the Statehouse, the bill suggests the state has a vested interest in ensuring unobstructed access to government offices, as well as a duty to maintain "the highest aesthetic standards" for the capitol grounds.
Protesters, however, say the Occupy encampment is a vigil, not a recreational activity, and thus serves as a protected form of free speech.
"If I were camping out, I'd have brought marshmallows," cracked one speaker during a public hearing on the bill Monday.
Dean Gunderson, a Boise attorney who's been active with the group since tents were erected in November, said what distinguishes Occupy Boise from other Occupy groups is that "we're more transparent and more open to discussions with law enforcement."
"The deputy chief (of the Boise Police Department) and his captains have my phone number, and I have theirs," Gunderson said. "The presence of our vigil has actually deterred criminal activity on the mall."
He noted a 42-page "operational plan" has been filed with the Department of Administration, addressing everything from noise and sanitary conditions to rules for cooking and the placement of tents. Occupy Boise hauls away its own garbage, shovels the sidewalks and conducts multiple events each day.
The speakers at Monday's hearing represented a wide cross section of society, including business owners, professionals, retired couples, university students and homeless individuals.
It's unclear, though, how many actually stay in the encampment overnight. Gunderson suggested the number ranged from 40 to 50 in the initial weeks to 20 or so now, but some lawmakers said they've heard it's as few as three. Only one speaker indicated she'd slept there more than a dozen nights since November.
"I'm concerned that many of the individuals who want to keep the camp in place don't stay there," said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa. "I don't think any of us want to restrict your right to hold a vigil or protest (but) I'm trying to understand why it's necessary for you to stay there night after night after night and not something you can protest about during the day."
Gunderson said the Idaho Constitution gives citizens a greater right to assembly than even the U.S. Constitution. Both recognize the right to assembly to redress grievances, he said, but Idaho also recognizes the right to consult for the public good and to instruct their representatives.
"In Idaho, all political power is inherent in the people," Gunderson said. Consequently, political activism and peaceful assembly "are not only protected acts in our Constitution. They're obligatory acts of every citizen when faced with the calamity of our times Viewed from that perspective, the number who stay in the camp overnight isn't relevant."
Rather than looking for ways to outlaw the Occupy encampment, he said, lawmakers should put on their coats and join the group.
Several speakers said they felt disenfranchised by the political process, maintaining it does a better job representing corporate interests rather than working for the good of the people.
"At one point we had a pact in America that said if you were willing to work, you would be able to live with dignity and promise," said retired carpenter and general contractor Geoff Burns. "But somewhere over the last 30 years, that pact has been broken. Work doesn't necessarily bring dignity any more."
Boise social worker Sage Premoe said these are "oppressive" times because money speaks louder than character.
"Are we not all here to make a better world?" Premoe wondered. "If our voices are silenced, how can we? Occupy Boise provides a gathering point for voices to be heard."
However, claims that lawmakers are unresponsive and don't listen to constituents offended several committee members.
"I know Democrats are making calls, holding forums and putting out newsletters," said Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise. "I understand feeling disenfranchised -- sometimes I feel that, too -- but we (lawmakers) are so accessible in Idaho. We have 44,000 constituents; in California, it's hundreds of thousands."
Responding to one speaker who claimed to represent "the 99 percent," Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Soda Springs, pointed out that there's an election in November.
"If you really do represent the 99 percent, then you can get elected," he said. "We're accountable to the people. If we aren't and you're right, then you'll be here and we'll be out."
If passed this morning, the bill could go to the full House for a vote.
Spence may be contacted at bspencelmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.
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