ACLU Sues City on Behalf of Occupy Columbus
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio has filed suit against the City of Columbus on behalf of Occupy Columbus, the socialist protesters who squatted on a sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse in late 2011 and removed their frequently-vacant tent when the city tightened permitting rules last summer.
The local Occupy Wall Street group maintains that restricting use of tents and other structures in a public right-of-way infringes on speech and assembly rights protected in the First Amendment as well as in Article I of the Ohio Constitution.
Based on the complaint filed on May 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, the Occupy Columbus case rests on the premise that placing a tent, table, or other structure that “is not easily movable” in public space amounts to protected speech.
“One of the defining physical features of the Occupy movement is the presence of its tent,” the complaint explains. “The tent is used to symbolize the ‘occupancy’ of public forums until the imbalance of power in political and economic structures has been addressed.”
Prior to municipal code changes in 2012, Occupy Columbus was permitted to use public sidewalk space at a cost of $1 per day, 24 hours a day – taking advantage of regulations meant for construction crews and essentially serving as a billboard for ProgressOhio.
The complaint filed by ACLU of Ohio echoes cries from Occupy Columbus leaders that the Democrat-dominated Columbus City Council is infringing on free speech rights by preventing tables, tents, or other structures from being left in public space indefinitely at practically no cost.
“Despite the fact that Occupy Columbus at all times remained compliant with the requirements of the permits and any additional requests made by DPS or the city of Columbus, including agreeing to a requested change of location when necessary, there were many members of the Columbus city government who were not happy with the groups presence and who wished to see them removed,” the complaint alleges.
According to ACLU of Ohio, Chapter 906 of the Columbus municipal code “places an unconstitutional prior restraint on Plaintiff and has a chilling effect on Plaintiffs speech.”
Occupy Columbus seeks an injunction against enforcement of Chapter 906, and has asked the court to declare the local law unconstitutional.
Before the city updated its right-of-way rules, the “occupation” site on a High Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse was frequently left vacant for days on end - especially after the arrest of several Occupy Cleveland protesters involved in a bomb plot.
Columbus Police Department officers repeatedly expressed concern about the items Occupy Columbus left piled in the public right-of-way, and on multiple occasions police caught protesters urinating on Statehouse grounds.