COLUMBIA — Several Occupy Columbia protesters arrested last week for refusing to leave the Statehouse grounds sued South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and state public safety officials Wednesday, saying their First Amendment rights were trampled when they were arrested for demonstrating on public property.
Meanwhile, a circuit judge granted a request from the protesters to resume their 24-7 occupation at the Statehouse until a hearing in the case scheduled for Dec. 1. The order also allows protesters to have tents on the grounds for the first time.
Saying Occupy Columbia is composed of peaceful protesters, the lawsuit alleges Haley blames the protesters for damage to Statehouse grounds because she doesn’t agree with their message.
“The physical occupation and physical presence is a key component of the protesters’ actual ‘occupation’ of the State House grounds and, therefore, a key component of the Occupy protesters’ political statement and petitioning conduct,” attorneys for the protesters wrote in the lawsuit, filed in Richland County Circuit Court. “The reason why the Occupy protests are so controversial and uncomfortable for governmental officials to endure is that it is the most persuasive form of peaceful, nonviolent protest.”
The seven men and women who brought the suit were among 19 protesters arrested Nov. 16 after Haley said anyone trying to camp out on the Statehouse grounds after 6 p.m. would be arrested by the Bureau of Protective Services for trespassing.
During a Statehouse news conference that afternoon, Haley said protesters were free to return during daylight hours but that the occupation had damaged the grounds and cost thousands in officer overtime and other costs.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety had no comment on the lawsuit. Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley, said the governor would fight the lawsuit.
“Let’s be clear. You have a group that lived on the grounds for 33 days, destroyed public property, used the Statehouse flower beds as a toilet, and now a judge says, ‘Forget the rules, forget their actions, and by the way bring your tent,’ ” Godfrey wrote in an e-mail. “It’s unacceptable, and we will fight it every step of the way.”
Tim Liszewski, who has acted as Occupy Columbia’s liaison with state officials, said the group was to hold a general assembly later Wednesday to decide whether to set up camp again.