CLDC Defends Right to Protest at Federal Plaza 24 Hours a Day
US District Court Judge Coffin will be hearing arguments on Occupy Activist Beatrice Semple’s challenge to the constitutionality of her arrest 11/8/12 at 11:15 am US District Court in Eugene. The Court will issue a written opinion so stay tuned…..
Historic Right to Protest Case Filed in Oregon
Civil Liberties Defense Center fights agency on constitutionality of protest requirements at Federal Plaza
Eugene, OR—The Civil Liberties Defense Center, Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep (SLEEPS) and Occupy Eugene will host a press conference today to announce a second round of legal actions to challenge the unlawful exclusion, permitting requirements, and enforcement that violated citizens’ constitutional rights. The Federal civil rights complaint and related motion for an emergency preliminary injunction, filed against the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) cites violations of plaintiffs’ First and Fifth Amendment Rights, by enforcing permit and curfew restrictions at the Federal Plaza, a traditional public forum typically known as “the Plaza.” Currently protestors are demonstrating at the Plaza under threat of imminent arrest.
Lauren Regan, staff attorney for the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) who filed the lawsuit, represents members of Occupy Eugene including Plaintiff F. Emily Semple, arrested last July at the Plaza, and Terrill Purvis. The U.S. Attorneys office voluntarily dismissed Semple’s federal criminal case last week after Regan argued GSA unconstitutionally evicted Semple and OE from the Plaza. The Court appeared to agree with Regan’s arguments. When activists then returned to the Plaza on Dec. 13th, they were again threatened with arrest, and this lawsuit became necessary to put an end to these illegal government actions.
“We hope this case will renew the strong precedent in this country, to protect the First Amendment to the maximum extent possible. When one person’s rights are eroded, all of our rights are worn thin and made vulnerable,” said Regan. “It is only as a result of persistent vigilance in defending those rights, that they flourish–particularly in politically turbulent times like these.” According to the CLDC, if successful, the lawsuit will mandate the GSA to revise it’s permitting scheme in accord with constitutional law regarding First Amendment use of the Plaza and all other federal properties in the United States that they manage. The current GSA permitting process only authorizes use of the Plaza Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Accordingly, the GSA banned protest after 5 p.m. and on weekends, when most people are available to demonstrate.
Plaintiff Semple stated, “It is very unfortunate that our government apparently believes the First Amendment only applies to people during the workday. We hope to make it clear that our don’t end when the government goes home from work.”
The complaint cites that GSA’s enforcement places an undue burden on the people by requiring excessive permitting processes and denying Occupy permits in violation of the constitution. According to the complaint, the change in GSA policies were a response to the Occupy movement and may only be enforced on alleged members of OE, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
“Even a single person must apply and be granted a permit before simply being present on the Plaza for First Amendment purposes,” said Regan. “These regulations place a serious prior restraint on those rights.”
The Supreme Court has upheld the right of the people to lawfully protest 24 hours a day on any subject whatsoever in a public forum such as the Plaza, including spontaneously. CLDC, Occupy Eugene and SLEEPS will continue to fight for the most expansive First Amendment rights and will not be silenced by persistent government repression.
Court Rules Oregon Forest Protester Law Is Unconstitutional
Today attorneys representing forest defenders in Oregon won a major victory at the Oregon Court of Appeals defending the constitutional right to protest by arguing that a state law is unconstitutional under the federal constitution. The Court struck down the statute it its entirety. The state statute at issue, ORS 164.886, “Interfering with Agricultural Operations,” was enacted in 1999 to discourage demonstrators from protesting against controversial timber sales in Oregon. It stated that if a person hindered, obstructed or impaired an agricultural operation they were guilty of a Class A misdemeanor crime and has been used to prosecuted dozens and dozens of nonviolent forest defense activists. The statute contained an exception to these prohibitions if the protesters were engaged in a labor dispute. Ninety-nine percent of all state prosecutions utilizing this statute were against non-violent protestors exercising their First Amendment rights. The Court ruled that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and struck the law in its entirety.
“This is a great victory for activists in Oregon and affirms that the Constitution is still alive and kicking!” said Lauren Regan, Staff Attorney and Director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. “In an era when activists are being maligned as ‘terrorists,’ it is very important that repressive laws like this one and other “ecoterror” laws are challenged and beaten from the law books as a patent disgrace to our constitutional rights and liberties. We are grateful to our courageous clients who placed their liberty on the line in defense of irretrievable forests, rivers and wildlife, and hope that this ruling will be viewed as an affirmation of the critical importance the right to dissent holds in our democracy.”
The CLDC argued, and the Court agreed, that “a person peacefully picketing against labor or logging practices on public or private land could, under the definitions [contained in the law], be attempting to obstruct an agricultural practice by another person on that person’s property by attempting to convince the person, the person’s employees, or the general public to alter the offensive practice” and that the law was thus facially unconstitutional in all applications.
In ruling that the entire statute was unconstitutional, the Court stated: “[H]ad the legislature known that a bill criminalizing all obstructions, impairments, and hindrances of agricultural operations also implicated serious constitutional questions, it would have chosen to avoid the issue entirely—particularly in light of the fact that the conduct at which the statute was primarily directed (vandalism, property destruction, etc.) was already prohibited by existing statutes.”
One of the appellants, George Sexton, a conservation director who was arrested at the infamous Biscuit timber sales added, “It is heartening that the 14th Amendment prohibits overzealous Josephine County prosecutors from making criminals out of courageous citizens who peacefully put their bodies between the log trucks and the illegal old-growth logging frenzy of public lands under the Bush Administration.”
Kudos to attorneys Lauren Regan, Misha Dunlap English, and Kenneth Krueshner for this hard fought victory.