COLUMBIA - Gov. Nikki Haley isn't immune from being sued by Occupy Columbia protesters who were kicked off the Statehouse grounds in 2011, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The Republican governor could theoretically appeal the decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her attorneys did not immediately return a message. A spokesman for Haley said the governor still had "several steps" before the matter was fully resolved but did not say if she would appeal the decision.

The ruling was the latest step in a civil dispute that has been ongoing since Occupy Columbia launched its protest at the Statehouse grounds Oct. 15, 2011, part of a nationwide series of demonstrations against economic inequality. Protesters set up tents, organized safety and medical committees and rented a portable toilet, some staying at the site nearly around the clock.

A month later, 19 protesters were arrested after Haley, in an effort to roust the protesters, said that anyone attempting to camp out on the Statehouse grounds after 6 p.m. would be arrested by the Bureau of Protective Services for trespassing.

Haley said the protesters were free to return during daylight hours but noted that the occupation had damaged the Statehouse grounds and cost thousands in officer overtime and other costs.

Several of those arrested sued, arguing that their First Amendment rights had been violated. A federal judge in South Carolina initially sided with protesters but reversed that ruling after the state Budget and Control Board - of which Haley is chairwoman - approved emergency regulations that banned sleeping on Statehouse grounds.

The new rule made no reference to 6 p.m. or any curfew on protesting. Haley said the protesters could voice their opinions but just couldn't sleep or set up camp.

That emergency rule eventually expired, and the protesters returned. In March 2012, Haley signed a bill banning camping and sleeping on Statehouse grounds, with the new law containing the same wording as the emergency prohibition.

Richland County prosecutors dropped charges against the protesters, but the civil lawsuit continued. In its ruling Monday, the appellate court said Haley's actions did in fact violate the protesters' civil rights because no regulation in place at the time of their actual arrests banned people from living on Statehouse grounds.

"It is not disputed that South Carolina and its state officials could have restricted the time when the State House grounds are open to the public with a valid time, place, and manner restriction," the court wrote. "However, as explained above, at the time of Occupy Columbia's arrest, no such restrictions existed."

Drew Radeker, a lead attorney for the Occupy protesters, said in an email that his clients were pleased with the decision and that they had been targeted because of their beliefs.

"We have always maintained that the reason for our clients' arrest was an unlawful order that singled these protesters out for punishment because a politician did not like them protesting at the State House," Radeker wrote.


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