A federal appellate court has ruled that Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina’s public safety agency can be sued by Occupy Columbia protesters who were arrested on the State House grounds in 2011.
More than a dozen protesters were peacefully arrested during a rainy night crackdown on Nov. 16 that year. The arrests came only hours after Gov. Haley had warned protesters that they could no longer camp on the Statehouse grounds and would be considered “trespassing” after 6 p.m.
However, attorneys representing the protesters later sued the governor, arguing Bureau of Protective Services officers and Highway Patrol troopers had no legal authority to detain them. They argued there were no restrictions against camping at the Statehouse at the time until the state Budget & Control passed emergency regulations a month later.
“Our position has always been that our clients were not really arrested for violating any law, but rather were arrested because there was an unlawful order,” attorney Andrew Radeker told South Carolina Radio Network. “It singled out these protesters… for punishment because there was a politician who did not like them protesting at the Statehouse.”
Radeker added that Occupy protestors were not even arrested for camping, but for “trespassing” on the grounds after 6 p.m. He said there has never been a regulation against being on the grounds after dark.
Attorneys for the governor and other state officials had sought protection from potential civil penalties, arguing the officials were carrying out their duties. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the protesters Monday, ruling they had a viable claim that their 1st Amendment rights were violated. The ruling leaves state officials open for potential civil damages.
Attorneys representing Gov. Haley did not return calls on Monday. Her spokesman told The State newspaper that “several steps” remain in the courts, including a potential appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We continue to stand behind the decision made two years ago – and which is still the rule today – that the State House grounds are not meant to be used as a public toilet or campground,” Doug Mayer told the paper.
Richland County prosecutors dropped the trespassing charges last year. The protesters are now seeking compensation, claiming their free speech rights were violated.