COLUMBIA — Several Occupy Columbia protesters arrested last week for refusing to leave the Statehouse grounds sued Gov. Nikki Haley and state public safety officials on Wednesday, saying their First Amendment rights were trampled when they were arrested for protesting on public grounds.
“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 individuals 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.”
Also Wednesday, 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 argues that Haley blames the protesters for damage to Statehouse grounds because she doesn’t agree with their message.
“What Governor Haley objects to is Plaintiffs’ message and she would not have evicted Plaintiffs if she were aligned with Plaintiffs,” the attorneys wrote.
The seven men and women were among 19 protesters arrested Nov. 16 after Haley said anyone attempting to camp out on 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 Statehouse grounds and cost thousands in officer overtime and other costs.
“At night, we can’t protect you. At night, I can’t ask the taxpayers to protect you. At night we’re asking you not to be here. So from 6 o’clock until daylight tomorrow, we’re going to have everybody leave. If you want to come back at daylight tomorrow, we welcome you to come back. If you want to come back every day until February, you can. But after the hours of 6 o’clock, if you are here, you will be removed,” Haley said Nov. 16.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety had no comment on the lawsuit, and a Haley spokesman did not immediately return a message. Tim Liszewski, who has acted as Occupy Columbia’s liaison with state officials, said the group would hold a general assembly meeting later Wednesday to decide when and if to set its camp back up.
“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 in an occupation of more than a month that she said brought $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 Associated Press.
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 slated 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 the man to authorities after noticing him walking around, trying to steal items.