Bill Haslam stands by arrests after judge orders Tennessee to stop enforcing a curfew that was used to evict Occupy protesters
By Karen McVeigh for the guardian
The governor of Tennessee has defended the arrests of scores of Occupy Nashville protesters, despite the state’s decision to back down on enforcing a curfew which led to the arrests.
Bill Haslam spoke a day after a federal judge ordered state officials to stop enforcing new rules that were used to evict protesters from a historic plaza in downtown Nashville.
Protesters had gone to court seeking a temporary restraining order against Haslam and other officials, saying the arrests and curfew violated their right to free assembly and free speech. The motion, which was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, accused Haslam of using a “metaphorical shotgun to kill a fly”, when he decided to dramatically restrict the hours in which Legislative Plaza, the city’s most historic political forum, is available to the protesters.
The decision by US district judge Aleta Trauger to grant the order was described by lawyers as a “watershed” that would help to bolster the Occupy movement.
Tennessee officials did not oppose the order, which ACLU said they hoped meant that it was “recommitting itself to safeguarding – not thwarting – public political expression.”
However, on Tuesday, Haslam, a Republican, said that the state’s decision to back down was not an admission of a mistake, but simply an agreement to the order.
He said he could not discuss the details of the state’s decision because of the legal action, but he said he stood by the arrests, which followed complaints from state workers and others in the area.
“Our goal is not to remove people from the plaza: never has been, never will be,” Haslam said. “Our goal is to provide a safe environment. We set a curfew that we felt like was reasonable. That being said, the only way to enforce a curfew is to do what we did.”
A new hearing is scheduled for 21 November.
Civil rights lawyers representing Occupy protests across the US have expressed interest in the lawsuit. It alleges that the state of Tennessee had illegally, secretly and arbitrarily revised the rules governing Legislative Plaza in a policy which violated their free speech rights.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director at the ACLU of Tennessee, said the decision was the “first step” in restoring demonstrators’ rights to free speech.
“Political expression deserves the highest level of protection, and it was unacceptable for the state to suddenly shut down protesters’ speech and forcibly oust them from Legislative Plaza, which has long been used as a place for peaceful expression,” said Weinberg.
Nashville’s Legislative Plaza, where activists have camped since 9 October, is a “unique space”, the only place in Tennessee where you can stand and see all three branches of government: the supreme court, the state capitol and the legislature.
Weinberg said she hoped the order would send a message to other protests.
“This is a national movement. Unfortunately, in Tennessee, the state chose to respond to public safety concerns by shutting down political debate. I’m hopeful that Judge Trauger’s order will be a reminder to cities and states across the country that the first amendment protects the right to gather and engage in political debate,” Weinberg said.
Across the US, police have taken down camps, confiscated property and carried out mass arrests, using criminal trespass and other laws to clear squares and parks of people protesting against corporate greed and social inequality since the Occupy Wall Street protests began six weeks ago.
Some, such as OWS in the privately-owned Zuccotti Park, have been tolerated by the city authorities, but others, such as Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland, where one protester suffered a fractured skull after being hit in the head by a police projectile, have been at least temporarily cleared of protesters by authorities.
Patrick Frogge, an attorney for ACLU Tennessee, said the order had “emboldened protesters across the country.
“We’ve had calls from lawyers in other Occupy movements. They want to use us a precedent” he said.
“Each case is a little different, because other governor or law enforcement have not pushed as far as ours. The very nature of a restraining order is that it’s filed on an emergency issue, and this was the governor trampling on civil rights.”
Haslam, the state governor, issued new rules on 27 October, which eliminated protesters’ right to gather after 4pm and denied their right to remain in Legislative Plaza after 10pm without express permission from the state of Tennessee.
Over the next two days, scores of protesters were arrested by state troopers, including more than two dozen overnight on Saturday, after they defied the curfew.
Both times a Nashville magistrate refused to jail the protesters, saying the state didn’t have probable cause to arrest them. They were released with citations, mostly for trespassing.
The lawsuit says Haslam approved the curfew after complaints over three misdemeanour violations around Legislative Plaza: “an assault, public urination and an apparent tryst beneath a magnolia tree.”
Reprint from the The Guardian.uk