You don’t need to make a sound to exercise your right to free speech. The courts tell us you can do it by writing a check to a political campaign, wearing a provocative T-shirt or burning a flag.

You can also do it by sleeping in a public park. That’s the nub of the argument around Occupy Maine, and what the Portland City Council’s Public Safety Committee should keep in mind when it wades into to the sensitive and complex issues surrounding this unprecedented public protest in Lincoln Park.

The city has an ordinance banning overnight camping. And it has a duty to enforce it, but not when enforcement violates the First Amendment. When there is a conflict, the Constitution trumps the local ordinance every time.

People who argue that the protesters are not engaging in constitutionally protected activities when they are in their tents miss the point. Camping in public is a symbolic act conveying the core message of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is that government and business have conspired to make an unjust economic system.

All of the members of the encampment could find more private places to bed down, and most could find more comfortable ones, but their around-the-clock presence in the park is a constant reminder of what they see as the seriousness of the situation.

The Occupy movement could have picked more traditional ways to get its message across, but the protesters would have been hard pressed to find a more effective one. They have gotten our attention.

But saying this is a free speech issue does not end the debate. The government has an obligation to protect public safety even when there is a political motivation behind an activity, and there are legitimate concerns about some of the recent events in Lincoln Park. So far, the city’s measured response has been exemplary, but officials are facing increasing pressure to end the attitude of tolerance.

The best outcome would be for the Occupy movement to plan their exit and signal it to the city.

In many ways, they have already succeeded: They have framed an important public issue and changed the political discourse. It may be time to declare victory and go home.

Barring that, the city is forced to come up with an approach that protects the public and respects the protesters’ rights to free speech.

And that response should acknowledge that sometimes “speech” can include where you choose to sleep.