Several Occupy Columbia protesters arrested last week for refusing to leave the Statehouse grounds sued South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and state public safety officials on Wednesday, saying their First Amendment rights were trampled when they were arrested for demonstrating on public property.
Meanwhile, a circuit judge granted a request from the protesters to resume their 24-7 occupation at the Statehouse until a hearing in the case scheduled for Dec. 1. The order also allows protesters to have tents on the grounds for the first time.
Noting that Occupy Columbia is composed of peaceful protesters, the lawsuit alleges that Haley blames the protesters for damage to Statehouse grounds because she doesn't agree with their message.
"The physical occupation and physical presence is a key component of the protesters' actual 'occupation' of the State House grounds and, therefore, a key component of the Occupy protesters' political statement and petitioning conduct," attorneys for the protesters wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed in Richland County Circuit Court. "The reason why the Occupy protests are so controversial and uncomfortable for governmental officials to endure is that it is the most persuasive form of peaceful, nonviolent protest."
"What Governor Haley objects to is Plaintiffs' message and she would not have evicted Plaintiffs if she were aligned with Plaintiffs," the suit says.
The seven men and women who brought suit were among 19 protesters arrested Nov. 16 after Haley said anyone attempting to camp out on the Statehouse grounds after 6 p.m. would be arrested by the Bureau of Protective Services for trespassing. During a Statehouse news conference that afternoon, Haley said protesters were free to return during daylight hours but said that the occupation had damaged the Statehouse grounds and cost thousands in officer overtime and other costs.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety had no comment on the lawsuit. Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley, said the governor would fight the lawsuit.
"Let's be clear. You have a group that lived on the grounds for 33 days, destroyed public property, used the Statehouse flower beds as a toilet, and now a judge says, 'Forget the rules, forget their actions, and by the way bring your tent,'" Godfrey said in an email to The Associated Press. "It's unacceptable, and we will fight it every step of the way."
Tim Liszewski, who has acted as Occupy Columbia's liaison with state officials, said the group would hold a general assembly later Wednesday to decide when and if to set up its camp again.
"Everyone is elated, and we will come together as a group to figure out what the next steps might be," he said.
The lawsuit had been expected since the arrests, which happened after Haley complained of public urination and toilet paper strewn in bushes during an occupation of more than a month that she said racked up $17,000 in police overtime and other expenses. Aside from $4,361 spent on halogen lights and stands, no cost breakdowns have been made available.
During the first two months of the nationwide Occupy protests, the movement, which is demanding more from the wealthiest Americans, cost local taxpayers at least $13 million in police overtime and other municipal services, according to a survey by The AP.
Top state Senate Republican Harvey Peeler also sent a letter to Haley that day complaining about the makeshift camp's disarray and noting that the spotlight would be on the capitol Nov. 28, when Haley is to light the state Christmas tree during the annual Carolighting ceremony. Liszewski has said the group planned to move to an inconspicuous area during that ceremony.
More protesters had prepared to be arrested Monday night in defiance of Haley's 6 p.m. order but declared victory after a post-curfew demonstration resulted in no arrests. The director of South Carolina's public safety agency called last week's 6 p.m. order to leave the grounds a misunderstanding, and at the end of Monday's protest, Haley's office put out a statement saying protesters were welcome at the Statehouse but couldn't sleep or live there.
Authorities revealed Tuesday that the only person arrested on Statehouse grounds prior to Nov. 16 was a man who was observed defecating near a veterans monument. Authorities could not tie him to the Occupy Columbia group, and protesters said they didn't recognize the name and had actually reported him to authorities after noticing him walking around, trying to steal items.
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