Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Legal Ease: 10 fun things in the OccupyMaine-Portland lawsuit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

OccupyMaine sued Portland late last year, seeking a court's permission to stay in Lincoln Park, given that the City Council has refused to brook any possibility of anyone remaining overnight in a city park for any reason (including free speech, expression, or assembly). The city has now replied with a court filing even longer than Occupy's. Together they provide the first full airing of the differences between the two groups' positions on the Occupation in Lincoln Park. We've read the lot, and found some fascinating passages in both filings.

From OccupyMaine
• Occupy observes something rarely considered in Maine courts: that the state Constitution provides additional rights beyond those recognized in the US Constitution and its First Amendment. One such Maine-specific right is "to institute government and to alter, reform, or totally change the same, when their safety and happiness require it." The Occupy suit stops short of saying this is what the Occupiers are doing — though it does suggest that it's what they want.
• While tacitly admitting that the decision-makers at least paid lip service to content-neutrality while denying OccupyMaine's petitions to stay in Lincoln Park, the suit argues that the markedly colder reception given by the City Council (as compared with the inviting welcome given to businesses) constitutes a content-specific action.
• OccupyMaine cites the oft-vilified Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court as offering protection to the encampment, saying the Supreme Court "has observed advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint is the essence of First Amendment expression."
• The Occupiers say that tenting is "integral to the protestors' message," though many Occupiers have been working very hard to establish the Meg Perry Center as a base of operations, and to expand protest activities well beyond the encampment.
• The Occupiers say Portland's anti-loitering ordinance prevents any assembly in the overnight hours, with no exceptions for Constitutionally protected speech or other permissible actions, and argue that this is too restrictive.

From the city of Portland
• Under cover of claiming that descriptions of several discrete parts of relevant public meetings are "summaries" of those entire meetings, the city denies reality by, apparently, claiming certain interactions never happened — such as, for example, the December 7 comments by Martin Steingesser that the city granted a multi-million-dollar tax break to the Pierce Atwood law firm.
• In a further departure from actual facts, the city claims OccupyMaine has not demonstrated in the park, nor protested on sidewalks, nor marched in the streets. The group members "have done absolutely no active protesting other than just living in the park 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," says the city's filing.
• The city admonishes OccupyMaine for filing suit, despite the clear expression by councilors that a lawsuit would be preferable — with councilors Jill Duson and Kevin Donoghue specifically urging getting to court quickly. And it claims suffering "significant harm," though the primary municipal expenditure is as much as $15,000 in hiring an outside lawyer to handle the case, rather than using the city's staff attorney.
• The city says it will not forcibly evict the Occupation. Responding to a passage in the Occupy suit saying "Absent . . . relief by this Court . . . the [Occupiers] face . . . forcible removal by the Portland Police Department," the city says: "City denies the . . . allegations."
• The city gives express written permission for a 24-hour continuous march through Lincoln Park: "OccupyMaine members could march through the park after 10:00 p.m. while expressing their message in a peaceful way, and there would be no ordinance violation." It also gives OccupyMaine specific permission to engage in "their expressive activities twenty-four hours a day on adjoining sidewalks or in other public spaces not subject to the City's Parks Ordinance."