Haley asks that Occupy Columbia suit be sent to federal court

Gov. Nikki Haley

Matt Silfer

COLUMBIA -- Attorneys for Gov. Nikki Haley asked Wednesday that a lawsuit against her filed by Occupy Columbia protesters be moved from state to federal court.

In papers filed just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, attorneys representing the governor and other top state officials said the issues around the arrests of protesters involve constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and unreasonable search and seizure and therefore should be heard in a federal court.

The motion means a Thursday hearing in state court has been canceled.

Demonstrators' attorney Mark Schnee said he will ask a federal judge to continue a restraining order from a state judge that prevents state officials from arresting the protesters and allows them to have tents on Statehouse grounds.

The protesters say their First Amendment rights were trampled when they were arrested Nov. 16 for demonstrating on public property.

Haley had said in a press conference earlier that day that the protesters damaged the Statehouse grounds and that she had gotten complaints about them urinating.

The seven bringing the suit were among 19 taken into custodyed after Haley announced anyone attempting to camp out on Statehouse grounds after 6 p.m. would be arrested for trespassing.

Last week, a circuit judge granted the protestors' request to resume their round-the-clock occupation for a time.

The order allowed them to have tents on the grounds and several of their colorful dome-shaped ones were visible Wednesday next to the monument to Confederate soldiers on the north side of the grounds.

The protesters contended in their suit that their weeks of protest have been peaceful and that Haley blames them 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.

Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley, said Wednesday evening that all of the defendants agreed that the federal court was the proper place for the suit to be heard.

After Haley was sued, the spokesman said the governor intended to fight it.

"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."